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Take heart, laugh a little

Perhaps laughter is the best medicine.

According to a recent study conducted by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, laughing may actually help protect against heart attacks by relieving mental stress, an affliction that affects many.

The study, conducted by Michael Miller, the director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, questioned 300 people, half of whom have had a heart attack or bypass surgery. The remaining participants were the same age as the heart patients, but were healthy.

“Inasmuch as mental stress and anger promote heart disease, we wondered whether a more positive set of personality attributes may have the opposite effect,” Miller said.

The subjects completed two questionnaires: a series of multiple-choice questions designed to determine how often they laughed in particular situations and a questionnaire composed of true and false questions designed to determine subjects’ aggression levels.

Multiple-choice questions involved everyday life situations, such as reaction to discovering someone wearing the same outfit at a party or a waiter spilling a drink on a restaurant patron. The true and false section featured questions involving personality traits, social skills and the ability to trust others.

The researchers found that subjects suffering from heart disease were 40 percent less likely to find humor in a situation or use humor to work their way out of uncomfortable circumstances compared to healthy people their own age. Overall, the heart disease subjects laughed less and became more hostile than their healthy counterparts.

Although Miller is not entirely sure why laughter protects the heart, he does believe the idea is rooted in the physical effects of mental stress. Mental stress impairs the endothelium, the inner lining of all blood vessels. Stress on this lining can cause inflammation, leading to a build-up of cholesterol and fat in the arteries. Eventually this build-up can cause a coronary attack.

“It is known that laughter releases stress-reducing hormones that aid in lowering blood pressure and heart rate, as well as reduce platelet adhesiveness,” Miller said. “In addition there may be as of yet unidentified substances released during laughter that may also be cardioprotective.”

This study is the first to connect laughter to the prevention of heart disease, and Miller believes that incorporating laughter in a person’s daily routine, no matter how prone they are to heart problems, can help relieve mental stress and reduce the likelihood of an attack.

“Presumably, laughter should be useful to everyone since there is no reason that physiologic stimuli released in response to laughter should vary between groups,” Miller said.

Although Miller admits that he is not sure how beneficial laughter is in preventing heart problems compared to other preventative measures, he does say that relieving stress is always a positive activity.

“I believe that reducing stress is quite beneficial and laughter is a great stress releaser, as of course is exercise. Obviously, the heart healthiest lifestyle should incorporate all of these measures,” Miller said.

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