Minding Your Heart Health

Heartbeat Magazine Minding Your Heart Health


By Paula Felps

Marvin Keyser knows there’s nothing funny about open heart surgery, but that doesn’t keep him from making people laugh about it. “When you’re laughing, you can’t cry and you can’t frown,” says Keyser, Mended Hearts southern regional director and president of Chapter 161 (Hollywood, Florida). “And when you smile, you feel better. If you don’t have a positive attitude, you’re in big trouble.” Keyser isn’t just clowning around; he takes humor seriously, and for good reason.

After having open-heart surgery in 1996, he began suffering from depression. At the time, he didn’t know how common depression is among patients who’ve had cardiac surgery, but the American Heart Association estimates that about 25% of patients suffer from what they call cardiac depression. His doctor prescribed antidepressants, but they just put Keyser to sleep. Next, his doctor suggested a much less conventional approach. “She told me to get into laughter and humor and music.

So I started listening to songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the stuff I grew up with. I’d play it in my car and it was clean and made me smile and feel happy.” Keyser also searched for ways to tickle his funny bone. He gravitated toward classic comedians like Don Rickles and Johnny Carson, then delved into the comedy of Robin Williams. He was surprised to learn that Williams underwent open-heart surgery in 2009 and, famously, suffered from depression. “I listened to books on humor and started listening to funny stuff all the time,” Keyser says. “I started feeling better in a few weeks. It’s not an overnight cure, but I didn’t want to take medication and I wanted to laugh and be happy. It worked.”

Keyser is such a strong believer in the healing power of humor that he teaches a segment on it at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Florida as part of their discharge program. His presentation on the power of humor is every bit as important as the segments from doctors, pharmacists, nutritionists and exercise facilitators, and there’s plenty of research to back him up: laughter is shown to improve vascular function and even increase tolerance to pain. In a study published in the Journal of Epidemology, Japanese researchers found that people who seldom or “almost never” laughed were 1.21 times more likely to have heart disease than their chuckling contemporaries.

What’s more, non-laughers were 1.6 times more likely to have a stroke than those who laughed every day. “It works. It’s proven,” Keyser says. “Stress is a killer, but you can push it away with laughter.”

Medicine of the Mind

As far back as the 1960s, William Fry, M.D. of Stanford University was studying the psychological processes that occur during laughter and noting the powerful effect it had on health. In the 1979 book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” Norman Cousins documented how he used humor to combat a life-threatening illness.

In recent years, science has found greater evidence of the link between mental health and physical well-being. In particular, people with positive mental attitudes are shown to lead longer, healthier lives. And when it comes to heart health, a growing mound of research shows that attitude is everything. One study, reported by Harvard Medical School, followed more than 300 patients who underwent coronary artery bypass surgery.

In addition to tracking the patients’ physical health, researchers monitored their psychological health and found that optimists were half as likely to require re-hospitalization in the six months following surgery. In a similar study of nearly 300 angioplasty patients, researchers found that pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or need repeat angioplasties or bypass operations. Longer-term studies have similar outcomes; a 10-year study from scientists at Harvard and Boston University evaluated more than 1,300 men, none of whom had coronary artery disease when the study began. However, by the end of the study, the pessimistic men were twice as likely to have developed heart disease.

“The relationship of the brain and the heart is like a marriage,” explains Hal Roseman, M.D., FACC, FACP of the Cardiology Wellness Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “When they are working together, all is well. But when that relationship becomes imbalanced, the outcome can have devastating effects. It can even be fatal.” Dr. Roseman says that’s because the heart takes its cues from the central nervous system. Anxiety, depression and high levels of stress send out a constant S.O.S. to the rest of the body. “Stress, both positive and negative, has a profound effect on the heart,” he says. “Negative emotions have been shown to have a causative effect on heart disease. When that stress becomes chronic, we’ve seen that it can cause or potentiate heart disease.” He points to the link between post-traumatic stress disorder and an increased incidence of heart disease.

“Some researchers and doctors believe that PTSD may even cause heart disease,” Dr. Roseman says. Minding your mental health is a key factor in improving your heart health, he says. “The bottom line is, you cannot separate your mental health from your physical health. If you ignore one, it affects the other. They’re completely intertwined.”

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