Mending a Broken Heart

“Love wasn’t put in your heart to stay. Love isn’t love until you give it away.” – Michael W. Smith

Heart disease is one of the leading killers in America. You probably know that lowering cholesterol and blood pressure can reduce cardiac risk factors. But did you know that the risk of dying within six months of a heart attack are four times greater for people who are depressed and lonely?

Valentine’s Day 2006 marked the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. When people ask how he died at such an early age (he was 47), I usually say that he died of a broken heart. I attribute my father’s heart disease to the high stress he was under, as well an unwillingness to honor his own needs for self-care. (His diet was terrible and he did not exercise much.) In addition, my parents had just divorced and my father was very lonely.

It’s ironic that my father died of a heart attack on February 14 — the day that we plaster hearts all over everything as a way to recognize those we love. His parting gift to me and my siblings was a homemade valentine … a hand-written note scrawled on the back of a used envelope found at his hospital bedside in the Intensive Care Unit. Apparently he sensed that his hours were numbered, and in his heavily-medicated state, he was able to leave us with his final wishes that we experience love, joy, and peace.

Dr. Dean Ornish, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF and author of the book, Love and Survival, tells us that “medicine today focuses primarily on drugs and surgery, genes and germs, microbes and molecules. Yet love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well. Connections with other people affect not only the quality of our lives but also our survival. Study after study finds that people who feel lonely are many times more likely to get cardiovascular disease than those who have a strong sense of connection and community.”

Lonely people are also much more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, taking refuge in food, drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. They have nobody else to live for. But even those who eat right, exercise, and avoid smoking and other risk factors, are at greater risk for premature death. There’s a lot that medical experts don’t completely understand, although several recent studies have found that the protective effects of love have a profound effect on heart health. Understanding the connection between how we live and how long we live can help us to make better choices.

Ornish suggests that “instead of viewing the time we spend with friends and family as luxuries, we can see that these relationships are among the most powerful determinants of our well-being and survival. We are hard-wired to help each other. Science is documenting the healing values of love, intimacy, community, compassion, forgiveness, altruism and service – values that are part of almost all spiritual traditions as well as many secular ones.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *