Studies Link Love and Intimacy to Good Cardiovasular Health

Bob Condor/Knight Ridder

In his Oscar-winning role in "Good Will Hunting," Robin Williams provides a unique spin on love and intimacy. He tells a young, less-experienced man (Matt Damon) that loving someone is about accepting the quirks, the peculiar habits that only lovers can share.

It is in this sharing of the most authentic self - one not entirely apparent to anyone else in the world - upon which relationships are built and fortified. Some of the habits might be cute or humorous. In the movie, not surprisingly, Williams recounts one uproarious example. Other idiosyncrasies are decidedly serious or intense. These quirks are to be cherished, he says.

While Hollywood love stories may teach us a few lessons, perhaps more revealing is the attention paid to such emotional currents by a growing number of doctors and researchers. No scientist has yet distilled romance into a formula, but several formidable studies link love and intimacy to improved cardiovascular health.

To their credit, the researchers are not about to stop at romance when determining the positive effects of intimacy on health. The results are worth taking to heart:

- Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland asked a simple question of 10,000 married men with no history of chest pains (angina): "Does your wife show you her love?" Those men answering yes were found to experience significantly less angina in the next five years than husbands responding no - despite such negative indicators as elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or electrocardiogram abnormalities.

- Yale scientists surveyed 119 men and 40 women before they submitted to angiography tests. Those who reported feeling most loved and supported were the same subjects found to have markedly less blockage in the arteries. The factor of feeling loved and supported - or unloved and unsupported - was independent of any effects of diet, smoking, exercise, family history or other risk predictor.

- In 1952, Harvard doctors selected 126 healthy male students at random. The students were asked to describe the nature of their relationships with their parents. In 1987, medical records were obtained for the subjects, who were in their 50s. More than 90 percent of the men who didn't perceive warm relationships with their mothers had been diagnosed with serious illnesses such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, ulcers and alcoholism, compared with 45 percent of men who cited loving relationships with their mothers. For fathers, the respective numbers were 82 and 50 percent.

These research studies and several dozen more can be found in a new book, "Love and Survival" (HarperCollins) by Dr. Dean Ornish, of the famed low-low-fat diet for reversing heart disease. Though he still strictly recommends heart patients eat no more than 10 percent of their daily calories in the form of fat, Ornish is liberal in his praise for what can't be found on any menu.

"The diet can play a significant role," he said. "But nothing is more powerful than love and intimacy."

Awareness of loneliness or social isolation is the first step in healing, he said.

With a number of best-selling books to his credit, Ornish is well-positioned to raise consciousness about the healing qualities of love and intimacy. And other researchers seem to welcome his input and influence.

"Americans need to hear this message," said Dr. Redford Williams, director of behavioral medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "We don't have actual data bases, but my opinion is at least as many people die from social isolation as smoking and maybe twice as much as deaths caused by bad dietary choices."