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What causes heart disease? How love affects heart health

Love can offer important protections for the heart just as the lack of it can have profound health consequences.
/ Source: TODAY

When Barney Clark became the first person in the world to receive a permanent artificial heart in 1982, his wife asked the doctors, “Will he still be able to love me?”

For centuries, people have thought of the heart as the command center of love, and the notion endures even as research shows most everything related to affection, attraction and adoration happens in the brain.

Still, an organ that beats faster whenever a loved one comes near or aches when a partner is gone is clearly a part of the story.

Even if the biological pump isn’t the seat of emotions, it’s extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system, writes Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, in his recent book, "Heart: A History." He believes cardiac psychology — the study of how feelings affect the heart — rather than new devices or drugs, will be the next frontier in keeping your heart healthy.

Doctors have long known love can offer important protections for the heart just as the lack of it can have profound health consequences.

“We know that patients who develop intense grief can develop acute congestive heart failure,” Jauhar told TODAY.

“People who have unhealthy or difficult relationships, that can cause chronic low-level stress, which can also accelerate heart disease… so we need to focus more on the metaphorical heart and less on the biomechanical heart to continue to make the kinds of advances that we have made in the last 50-60 years.”

A person’s capacity to love can be a matter of life and death, Jauhar writes. Indeed, recent studies have found heart patients who are divorced, separated, widowed or never-married have a higher risk of dying than their married counterparts. Married people also have a lower risk of developing heart disease than singles and they’re more likely to survive a heart attack.

What happens to your heart when you fall in love?

A dozen areas of the brain work together to release chemicals such as dopamine and adrenaline, according to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

In the early stages of love — lust and attraction — adrenaline and norepinephrine make the heart beat faster so you may find your pulse racing when just thinking about the object of your affection or whenever that person is near. Dopamine induces euphoria.

Later in the relationship — when the intense romantic feelings fade, but the deep bond of lasting love takes over — endorphins and the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin create “an overall sense of well-being and security,” researchers at the Loyola University Health System noted.

Higher oxytocin levels are associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate, studies have found.

Long-term lovers can grow so close that their hearts beat in sync and if one of them is in pain, just the simple act of holding hands can synchronize their breathing and help the discomfort go away.

The heart burden of discord and grief

On the flip side, having a bad relationship with your significant other is corrosive for heart health and should be addressed, Jauhar said. An unhappy marriage can raise the risk for cardiovascular disease by raising blood pressure and heart rate.

And intense grief after losing a loved one can lead to a real broken heart. People who have suddenly lost a partner have a 41 percent higher risk of atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heart beat that can cause a stroke or heart failure, Danish researchers found.

When couples who have been together for decades die within weeks or even hours of one another, doctors sometimes blame “broken-heart syndrome,” or takotsubo cardiomyopathy — a condition that actually causes the heart to change shape in response to extreme stress or grief, such as a break-up or the death of a spouse, Jauhar writes.

So take good care of your heart and be careful who you give it to: "It's not just a simple pump, it's one that's really a canvas for our emotional lives," he said.