Out on the cutting edge, hard-nosed researchers study the tie between healthy emotions and stout hearts

Heart and soul: out on the cutting edge, hard-nosed researchers study the tie between healthy emotions and stout hearts

T. George Harris


SCIENTIFIC MEDICINE has made extraordinary progress against heart disease by denying one of our most romantic notions: that our emotions center in the heart (see “Heart Gallery,” page 52). By treating the heart as an unfeeling pump, surgeons have been able to create pacemakers and work their way up to the ultimate in high-tech medicine: the artificial heart. But even as Barney Clark and other courageous patients were testing the electronic pumps, scientists were using chemistry, psychology and hard data to discover that trouble in the heart may come in part from sickness of the soul: . “SPIRITUAL NEED” may be the underlying crisis among Type A people prone to heart attacks, says Meyer Friedman, one of the two researchers to first describe Type A behavior. Ray Rosenman, the other Type A pioneer, is focusing on what he calls “a deep-seated anxiety” among the truly coronary-prone. . IN SYSTEMATIC interviews with company executives under severe stress–telephone managers during Ma Bell’s breakup and oil executives during deregulation–the University of California’s Kenneth Pelletier is finding a special trait in the hardy ones who thrive while others suffer heart attacks: a deeper spiritual dimension. . LOOKING AT a similar tendency, Dean Ornish, who has produced the first measured reversal of heart disease, talks privately to friends about a problem that troubles most of his heart patients: the need to support a “persona,” a presented self that does not jibe with the real self. One of his experimental group claimed to have been an Olympic athlete, though the man had never been anywhere near a champ’s role. Ornish uses a rigorous diet and regular exercise in his intense lifestyle program, but he puts unique trust in his meditation/relaxation exercises. He believes they bring on deeper changes of the spirit. . INTERNIST Redford Williams, who describes 12 steps to beat the heart-hurting role of cynicism on page 38, notes that many of the world’s great religions mirror these strategies. He quotes the first-century Jewish rabbi, Joshua ben Chananya, who said, “The evil eye, the evil inclination and hatred of his fellow creatures drives a man out of the world.” Williams says that “when different ways of knowing point to the same conclusion, I have more confidence in the truth.” . HARVARD CARDIOLOGIST Herbert Benson agrees. Author of The Relaxation Response, Benson has shown how using a repetitive prayer produces sharp reductions in heart beat and blood pressure. In preliminary data not yet published, Benson has now gone two steps further: The relaxation response reduces anger and hostility–and brings on a comparable reduction in blood pressure. Teamed now with researcher Jared Kass, Benson says the next experiments point toward a correlation between greater spirituality and improvement in health. . AT THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland, psychologist James Lynch continues to explore an intensely psychological side of high blood pressure. “It’s a communication problem,” he says. Blood pressure goes up when we talk, even for those who use sign language, he finds, and down when we really listen to another person. Lynch often treats “hypertensive couples,” who never quite listen to one another. Each practices the next riposte until the partner shuts up. Other researchers find that a spouse or boss may serve as a trigger to the anger or hostility likely to raise blood pressure. . MEDICAL PSYCHOLOGIST Charles Spielberger continues to update the Type A research as more of the original test group suffer heart attacks; anger and irritation, he finds, now prove to have an even more decisive role as the traits that bring on heart attacks. . LARRY SCHERWITZ, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has confirmed his hunch that people who overuse “I” or “my” and other self-centered pronouns are twice as likely to have heart attacks. His prescription: “Fall in love.”

These exciting new prospects have not come at the expense of mainline medicine. In fact, the last few years have provided one new miracle after another in surgical and medical defenses against heart damage. Coronary units in hospitals have lately become so effective at turning around a heart attack once it starts that one has even more reason to race to an emergency room at the first suspicious symptom. And the drugs to prevent attacks, with less serious side effects, are improving almost monthly.

Nor have the new psychological defenses against heart damage come from people who reject the rigorous standards of scientific medicine. Quite the contrary. Most of these advances have been made possible by cutting-edge technology such as quantitative angiography and PET scans. Without these superb instruments, researchers would not be able to study the interacting effects of diet, belief, behavior and character.

The editors of Psychology Today, in fact, are working with researchers on plans for a scientific conference to bring these different lines of inquiring into clearer focus, if only to head off too much enthusiasm on our part. Likely conference title: Heart and Soul.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group