Scientists have long been keen to prove that love gives us health benefits, too—beyond the obvious advantage of always having a date for New Year’s Eve. Researchers can’t say for sure that romance trumps an affectionate family or warm friendships when it comes to wellness. But they are homing in on how sex, kinship and caring all seem to make us stronger, with health gains that range from faster healing and better control over chronic illnesses to living longer.
The benefits of love are explicit and measurable:
A study last year from the University of Pittsburgh found that women in good marriages have a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those in high-stress relationships.The National Longitudinal Mortality Study, which has been tracking more than a million subjects since 1979, shows that married people live longer, have fewer heart attacks and lower cancer rates, and even get pneumonia less frequently than singles.And a new study from the University of Iowa found that ovarian cancer patients with a strong sense of connection to others and satisfying relationships had more vigorous “natural killer” cell activity at the site of the tumor than those who didn’t have those social ties. (These desirable white blood cells kill cancerous cells as part of the body’s immune system.)
Some experts think it won’t be long before doctors prescribe steamy sex, romantic getaways and caring communication in addition to low-cholesterol diets and plenty of rest. If that sounds like a happy Rx, here are ways to make the emerging evidence translate into real-life advice.
The benefits of bear hugs
Doctors at the University of North Carolina have found that hugging may dramatically lower blood pressure and boost blood levels of oxytocin, a relaxing hormone that plays a key role in labor, breastfeeding and orgasms.
Researchers asked couples to sit close to one another and talk for 10 minutes, then share a long hug; afterward they found positive, albeit small, changes in both blood pressure and oxytocin.
But the power of frequent daily hugging was intense: The women with the highest oxytocin levels had systolic blood pressure that was 10 mm/Hg lower than women with low oxytocin levels—an improvement similar to the effect of many leading blood pressure medications, says Kathleen Light, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at UNC and one of the study’s authors.
“Getting more daily hugs from their husbands was related to higher oxytocin, and so the hugs were indirectly related to lower blood pressure,” she says. Men didn’t get the blood pressure benefit from hugging. But don’t feel bad for him: He probably gets the same health gains from steady sex that you do from daily snuggling.
A 2002 study from the University of Bristol in England found that men who had sex two or more times a week cut their risk of having a fatal heart attack in half. And a recent study from the National Cancer Institute found that men who ejaculate frequently may be protecting themselves against prostate cancer.