Health benefits of being in love, according to researchers

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published February 12, 2020

Key Takeaways

Mr. Rogers once said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” Who could argue with that? 

Those wise words support the notion that love provides health benefits, and not just in fuzzy, indefinable terms. Researchers have shown that love offers a lot of specific, tangible health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety, improved immunity, less pain, and longer life. 

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are a few of the health benefits that love provides, starting (appropriately) with the heart...

Love lowers blood pressure

In multiple studies, researchers have shown that people in happy, loving marriages tend to have lower blood pressure levels. But, the state of matrimony isn’t the key—it’s the loving part, researchers found in one study

These researchers looked at married couples and singles, and found that people in “high-quality” (ie, loving) marriages had lower ambulatory systolic blood pressure than singles. Interestingly, both happily married couples and singles had lower blood pressure levels than people in “low-quality” marriages. 

“Therefore, marriage must be of a high quality to be advantageous,” the authors noted. “In other words, one is better off single than unhappily married”—at least in terms of blood pressure, that is. 

Love reduces anxiety

People in long-term stable relationships can be just as madly in love as people in intense, new relationships, according to researchers who used functional MRI (fMRI) to analyze the brains of people in love. 

However, the researchers found a notable difference between long-term couples (who were together at least 10 years) and new couples: Love reduced anxiety in people in long-term romantic relationships. 

“Results for long-term romantic love showed recruitment of opioid and serotonin-rich neural regions, not found for those newly in love. These systems have the capacity to modulate anxiety and pain, and are central brain targets for the treatment of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, present findings are in line with behavioral observations suggesting that one key distinction between romantic love in its early and later stages is greater calm associated with the latter.”

Love fights colds

Can love cure the common cold? Researchers reported that falling in love boosts immunity, which helps fight viral infections like the cold and flu. 

For this study, the researchers conducted genetic profiling in 47 women. They found that women in love had changes in the gene regulation of immune cells. 

“These findings are consistent with a selective up-regulation of innate immune responses to viral infections,” the authors wrote. “These effects emerged above and beyond the effects of changes in illness, perceived social isolation, and sexual contact.”

The researchers speculated that these changes may also be preparing a woman’s body for pregnancy. (Sorry, guys—no word yet on whether love can fight colds in men.)

Love lessens pain

“Love hurts”? Not necessarily. Overall, being in love (and being loved in return) lessens feelings of pain, according to a body of research. In one study, researchers used fMRI to monitor people who were in love. While under moderate and high thermal pain, participants were shown pictures of their romantic partner and then an equally attractive and familiar acquaintance. They were also given a word-association distraction task known to reduce pain. 

Which one reduced pain the most? You guessed it—the picture of their sweetheart. (The word game came in second!) 

“Greater analgesia while viewing pictures of a romantic partner was associated with increased activity in several reward-processing regions... [that were] not associated with distraction-induced analgesia,” the researchers wrote. 

Love lengthens life

Couples in happy, stable relationships live longer. Specifically, those who described their marriage as “very happy” or “pretty happy” had 20% lower odds of dying early than those who described their marriage as “not too happy,” according to one study that included more than 19,000 married US adults. 

There are both material and emotional reasons for greater longevity. On a practical level, being in a supportive relationship means looking after one another. She’ll remind him to exercise, for instance, while he’ll go to the pharmacy to pick up her medications. 

On an emotional level, loving support and social engagement help increase longevity. The good news for everyone is that this is not just for married people or long-term couples. People with strong social relationships (not just with spouses, but with family or friends) have a 50% increased likelihood of survival, according to an oft-cited study

Bottom line: Love is good medicine

Just as we should seek out positive, loving relationships—from a spouse, a friend, or even a pet—we should also avoid loneliness, which in itself has become a modern-day health hazard. 

On Valentine’s Day, it can be magical to gaze into your sweetheart’s eyes and imagine a long life together, but that’s not the only place you’ll find it. Love is all around, if you look for it. 

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