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How laughter, anger may influence heart health

Anger and the inability to manage stress can harm your heart, while laughter can be an effective stress-reliever and improve cardiovascular function, according to a pair of studies presented yesterday at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) meeting.

In the first study, Italian researchers recruited 228 survivors of an acute myocardial infarction, 200 of whom were men, conducted psychological evaluations of individuals and followed them for 10 years to evaluate how negative emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety might affect prognosis in cardiology. During this time, researchers recorded 51 cardiac events. According to an ESC release:

To understand which factors were able to predict these events the authors used a statistical analysis known as the Cox model. Examining factors such as the age of patient, gender, psychological variables, clinical data (traditional risk factors, peak cardiac necrosis enzymes, left ventricular wall motion score index and heart rate variability), the results show that the only factors able to predict cardiac events in patients are the Anger and Stress-related disturbances, with a relative risk of 2.30 and 1.90 respectively. Patients who had reported a high score on the Anger scale had a higher risk of experiencing a new event, 2.30 times superior in comparison with those who had reported a low score on the same scale.

These study results were particularly interesting in light of additional findings presented at the ESC meeting by University of Maryland researcher Michael Miller, MD, who has been exploring the role of laughter and humor in reducing the risk of heart disease for the past decade.

Miller's early work suggested mental stress caused blood vessels to constrict so he decided to examine if positive emotions, such as laughter, had the opposite effect. In his latest study, participants were instructed to watch either a comedy or intense drama and were monitored for carotid artery activity during the films. According to an ESC release:

When study volunteers watched the stressful movie, their blood vessel lining developed a potentially unhealthy response called vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow. This finding confirms previous studies, which suggested there was a link between mental stress and the narrowing of blood vessels. However, after watching the funny movie, the blood vessel lining expanded.

Overall, more than 300 measurements were made with a 30-50% difference in blood vessel diameter between the laughter (blood vessel expansion) and mental stress (blood vessel constriction) phases. “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium after laughing was consistent and similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise or statin use” says Dr. Miller.

Previously: Keep calm or blow a fuse? Studying emotion regulation, Using humor to evaluate negative experiences can improve emotional health and No surprise here: Anger and stress are bad for your health
Photo by Marcus Bernales

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