Why Love Really Is the Most Powerful Healing Force in the World; on Valentine's Day, a Fascinating Theory from Medical Scientists Suggests That Emotions May Play a Far More Powerful Role in Health Than Many of Us Ever Suspected

Article excerpt

Byline: Sara Regan

It was when he was nearing his 40th birthday that Dean Ornish began to notice the symptoms familiar to so many single men and women in their 30s. At first, it was just a vague feeling of unease, a sense of dislocation that gnawed away at him into the early hours. By rights, he reasoned, he should have been content.

At the height of his success in the medical world, he'd become one of the world's leading voices on preventive medicine. His groundbreaking book, Stress, Diet And Your Heart, had been a bestseller, he was a clinical fellow at world-leading Harvard Medical School and a US survey had just named him one of the 50 most influential people of his generation.

Away from the adulation it was different.

He was troubled, depressed even. His life, he recalls, felt hollow -- a bitter irony that wasn't lost on this brilliant medical scholar. After years of hard work, his decade-long study into the link between emotions and wellbeing was finally beginning to attract attention from serious voices in the medical world. How ironic then that his own life should be so at odds with the philosophy he was asserting.

As he recalls in his 1999 book Love And Survival, 'I had to face the fact that I was just not at peace. During a string of shallow relationships, I had never experienced real, deep love. For me, it was doubly humiliating because, as a medical scientist, much of my work had been centred on a fascinating research project which had set out to examine the truly powerful idea that love and intimacy can overcome disease.' At the time, it was a revolutionary -- and in cloistered medical circles a much disputed -- theory.

But now, as we head into an ever more depersonalised decade of Facebook friendships, community breakdown and lives stripped of meaning, evidence is mounting to support such thinking. In the last decade, a series of projects in the US and Europe have produced an avalanche of research to endorse the view that 'love has not just a peripheral effect on our health but a truly profound one'.

'The growing consensus is that love can, quite literally, help us to live longer,' says Ornish, who went on to vindicate his findings in a stable, nurturing relationship of his own. 'Indeed, from my own experience, I believe that no other factor in medicine -- not diet, exercise, genetics, drugs or surgery -- has as great an impact on our health and quality of life.' Yet even now, 10 years on from those findings, overworked doctors still have a tendency to focus on the physical aspect of healing, ignoring the role of emotional wellbeing.

How much easier to reach for the prescription pad when you've got a waiting room full of patients, or to resort too quickly to the surgeon's knife.

'When I first raised the idea that intimacy can be medically beneficial, most doctors would have laughed in my face,' says Ornish.

But hard scientific evidence is hard to dispute. If a new drug had the same impact on our health as the evidence suggests love does, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it to their patients.

Yet, as we head into a new decade, our failure to recognise the cause of our malaise is increasingly evident. A deep spiritual hunger is now reflected in the rocketing sales of selfhelp books, depression rates and the demand for something we in Ireland once laughed at -- that all-American panacea, therapy.

For many, the feelings of isolation are acute, following the breakdown of social structures that used to provide us with a real sense of connection. One of the first studies to reflect the link between emotions and health was conducted at Harvard University in the early 1950s. A group of male students, picked at random, were asked to grade their relationship with their parents from 'close' to 'strained' and 'cold'. Thirty-five years later, the medical records of the group were examined, and the results stunned researchers. …