In case you missed it, World Laughter Day was celebrated this past Sunday. Yet, our understanding of laughter’s influence on the cardiovascular system continues to grow since the inaugural World Laughter Day in 1998. In fact, my interest in this area began in 1997, when Dr. Adam Clark, a recent graduate of Albert Einstein School of Medicine and one of our Medical Residents, approached me seeking a research project in cardiovascular prevention. At that time, our laboratory was studying families with extreme levels of HDL (the good cholesterol); one of our interests was evaluating high HDL in protecting against heart disease.
We reasoned that if HDL served to counteract some of the adverse effects of LDL (the bad cholesterol) on the heart, might a similar story be played out when evaluating emotional health and heart disease. While studies had previously established emotional stress as a contributor to heart disease, information was simply lacking as to whether positive emotions may offset this effect.
Our initial study of a 40% lower risk of heart disease among those who were able to find certain daily stressful situations humorous led to other studies that ultimately supported a direct link between laughter and vascular health; click here for the review paper co-authored with Dr. William Fry, the late Stanford University professor and pioneer in the field.
As additional research has been conducted in recent years, we’ve gained new insights into the role of laughter and cardiovascular health. Listed below are some of the reasons why we should keep this party going (daily rather than yearly):
- A Japanese study of nearly 21,000 men and women (aged 65 years and older) found that daily laughter was associated with a 60% lower risk of a stroke compared to those who never or rarely laughed.
- A 15-year study in Norwegians found a greater than 70% higher survival rate from cardiovascular disease in women with a high sense of humor.
- Watching a funny video reduces stress cortisol levels (that in turn, increases inflammation/cardiovascular risk), improves short-term memory and learning ability.
- Laughter reduces/offsets some of the symptoms associated with a stressful event that promote inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
- Maintaining a humorous perspective about personal experiences is associated with resilience and better psychological -and by extension, cardiovascular, health.
- In the elderly, laughter therapy has been shown to reduce chronic pain (that in turn, raises blood pressure/cardiovascular risk) and improve overall life satisfaction.
- Laughter may slow/delay the onset and progression of vascular complications associated with diabetes.
Michael Miller, MD is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland and author of “Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.”: published by Penguin Random House.