Intimacy and Heart Disease – an Overlooked Risk Factor

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

The list of conventional risk factors for cardiovascular disease does not include loss or lack of intimacy.

You’ll see the usual risk factors that research has repeatedly examined and the media reports on: older age, unfavorable family history, poor diet, elevated cholesterol and blood fats, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, lack of exercise, and abnormal levels of dozens of different biochemicals in the body.

You won’t see anything about “feeling states,” the emotions that lie outside the realm of hard science. You can’t really measure such things.

But as a cardiologist who studied psychotherapy with great teachers, I learned to look for emotional issues among my patients and determine whether they might play a role in the path to illness. Often there was a clear link, and by addressing it, I could help a person’s healing and recovery.

It’s a major mistake to ignore the impact of emotions on the body. Stress, as I have written many times, is a major player in inflammation and disease, including cardiovascular disease. Studies suggest that stress-related complaints account for between 60 and 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians.

Stress is commonly thought of as explosive or seething reactions to life’s dilemmas, woes, challenges, and inconveniences. Stress can kill.

Stress can also include something less obvious. To be sure, there is the great stress involved in the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a loss of a job. That’s an acute kind of stress. Then there’s a chronic type of stress that includes an enduring lack or loss of love and intimacy in one’s life. Such a deficiency may or may not lead to depression, which is by itself a distinctly significant risk factor.

It is unlikely that you have heard much about how heartbreak or lack of intimacy figure into heart disease. I wrote a whole book about these very real issues because I encountered them so often in my practice. I also summarized my experience in an article here.

Years ago I was deeply impressed by the research of a Russian gerontologist who studied longevity. He examined twenty thousand healthy people aged eighty and above, and reported the key ingredients he discovered most of them had in common. One was good relationships – rich in love, intimacy, and support. Physical connectedness to a partner meant anything from intercourse to cuddling and kissing, and it was the holding and the intimacy that mattered the most to them.

I was also deeply influenced by the work of psychologist Jim Lynch, Ph.D., a longtime University of Maryland researcher who wrote A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. Early in his research career, he analyzed data from national health surveys and found that single people, whether never married, widowed, or divorced, had a 2-10 times higher death rate than married people, a statistic that held true, regardless of age, race, or gender.

You can’t buy intimacy at a store, so here are some practical steps to consider that may help fill the void:

  • Volunteer your time for a cause you believe in.
  • Engage more with community or religious affiliations.
  • Get social. Invite others to be with you if you are not invited by others.
  • Pursue activities that will get you involved with others and help take your mind and theirs’ off loss or loneliness.
  • Consider getting a pet if you don’t have one. A pet offers unconditional love to the withdrawn person, the lonely person, or the grief-stricken person.

I hope you are not someone experiencing lack of intimacy in your life. But maybe you know somebody who is. You would do that person a great service by sharing this article.

Love and intimacy cannot “cure” or prevent cardiovascular problems alone, but they can sure make a big difference, and even provide an emotional springboard for making heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

The combination is powerful medicine.

© 2015 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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