Study provides proof that laughter is the best medicine for heart disease

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Laughter may be the best medicine when it comes to heart disease, new research suggests.

Regularly having a good chuckle at comedy programmes could improve symptoms of the condition – and potentially reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Scientists in Brazil found heart disease patients who laughed at funny shows twice a week experienced reduced inflammation and an increase in the heart’s capacity to pump oxygen around the body.

Experts said the research raised the “interesting possibility” that laughter therapy could be more widely available on the NHS in future, to help some of the 7.6 million Britons with heart disease.

Laughter yoga is already available on the health service in some areas, usually for people with anxiety or depression – but not specifically for heart patients.

Previous studies have shown laughing boosts the “happy hormones” endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. It can also boost immunity and the body’s natural defence systems.

The latest research was presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Amsterdam this weekend.

It involved 26 adults with an average age of 64, who had all been diagnosed with coronary artery disease – caused by plaque build-up in the wall of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

Over a three-month period, half of the patients were asked to watch two different hour-long comedy programmes each week, including popular sitcoms.

The other half watched two different serious documentaries every week, about topics such as politics or the Amazon rainforest.

At the end of the 12-week study period, the comedy group saw a 10 per cent improvement in their VO2 max, a test measuring how much oxygen the heart can pump around the body.

They also showed improvements in flow-mediated dilation tests – which measure how well arteries can expand. 

And blood tests revealed they had “significant reductions” in inflammatory biomarkers, which indicate how much plaque has built up in the blood vessels and whether people are at risk of heart attack or stroke.

Lead author Prof Marco Saffi, of the Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, in Brazil, said: “Our study found that laughter therapy increased the functional capacity of the cardiovascular system. It is a good intervention that could help reduce that inflammation and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“Laughter helps the heart because it releases endorphins, which reduce inflammation and helps the heart and blood vessels relax. It also reduces the levels of stress hormones, which place strain on the heart.”

Heart disease causes 160,000 deaths per year – one in four of all deaths in the UK.

It occurs when the heart’s blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries, potentially causing deadly heart attacks.

Day-to-day symptoms

Patients with the condition often experience day-to-day symptoms including chest pain and shortness of breath, and are also at risk of heart failure.

Medication such as statins can help, while some patients need surgery to widen an artery.

But Prof Saffi said laughter therapy might in future be a treatment offered to help patients in care homes and hospitals, as well as those with heart disease living in the community.

“It does not have to be TV programmes – people with heart disease could be invited to comedy evenings, or encouraged to enjoy fun evenings with friends and family. People should try to do things that make them laugh at least twice a week,” he said.

Prof Saffi told reporters laughter was good for both the brain and the heart – and could even make patients better at sticking to medical treatments.

“We know when people are happier they are better at adhering to medication,” he added.

The study could only show an association between laughing and improved symptoms, it did not prove one caused the other.
Prof James Leiper, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “While this study reveals the interesting possibility that laughter could in fact be a therapy for coronary artery disease, this small trial will need to be replicated to get a better understanding of how laughter therapy may be helping these patients.

“It’s encouraging to see that something so simple and widespread could benefit our health, but more research is needed to determine whether laughter alone led to the improvements seen, and how long the effects could last.”

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