At the turn of the 20th century (1900), U.S. women were most likely to die from infectious diseases and complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, 63 percent of American women die as a result of the chronic conditions of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Heart disease leads the pack.
Improving women’s health, and increasing awareness and understanding of women’s health issues, is the task of the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. OWH is celebrating the seventh annual National Women’s Health Week this year from May 14–20th as a way to accomplish its mission. The 2006 celebration starts on Mother’s Day and ends on the following Saturday. However, women’s healthcare has a therapeutic ally that cannot be confined to a one-week national celebration. It’s a proven women’s health enhancer and stress reliever—laughter.
Laughter: A Heart Healthy Activity
It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. A growing body of research supports the theory that laughter has therapeutic value and may be an antidote to heart disease.
In 2000 and again in 2005, a team of researchers at University of Maryland Center for Preventive Cardiology, led by the Center’s director Dr. Michael Miller, released study results which point to a strong connection between laughter and cardiovascular health.
In 2000, Dr. Miller led a research team which conducted a study on the humor response comparison of 300 people. Fifty percent had suffered a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Fifty percent were healthy, age-matched participants without heart disease. Miller said that the most significant finding was that “people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations. They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility.” He went on to say that perhaps laughter should be added to the list of recommended behaviors known to reduce the risk of heart disease, like exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat.
In 2005, Miller and his team of researchers released the results of another study. Using laughter-provoking movies to gauge the effect of emotions on cardiovascular health, the study showed that laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow.
The results of their study point to a strong connection between laughter and cardiovascular health. “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains and muscle tension associated with exercise,” says Dr. Miller. “We don’t recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis. Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.”
Laughter: A Guaranteed Stress Reliever
Stress at work is a growing problem for women in the workplace. In one survey, 60 percent of employed women cited stress as their number one problem at work. Furthermore, levels of stress-related illness are nearly twice as high for women as for men. Once again, researchers are telling us that laughter has many physiological and emotional benefits that help to combat stress related illness. “When you are laughing, you discharge tension associated with four primary negative emotions—depression, anxiety, fear and anger,” says Dr. William Fry, a behavioral scientist, psychiatrist and Emeritus Associate Clinical Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine of Stanford University.
And, Dr. Lee Berk, a pioneer researcher studying positive emotions/behaviors and their biochemical/physiological effects on stress hormones and immune system components in the field of Psychoneuroimmunology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, says “Laughter can relax the muscles, increase alertness and memory, reduce pain, lessen emotional stress and lower blood pressure.”
With all the physiological and psychological health benefits evidenced by solid scientific research, leading-edge organizations in the Triad are embracing therapeutic laughter activities to reduce stress and enhance quality of work life for staff.
Employee Wellness at High Point Regional Health System (HPRHS), asked Certified Laughter Leader Marilyn Sprague-Smith to help employees put laughter back in their lives. “Marilyn is showing us how to use laughter to lighten up our mental workload and bring a sense of joy, happiness and harmony into our daily activities,” says Sue Cumpston, Employee Wellness Coordinator for the health system. The program was brought to HPRHS as a community outreach service of Unity’s laughter club program.
You, too, can choose to let laughter be your therapeutic ally for increased health and wellness. Get involved in National Women’s Health Week by creating a personal health and wellness plan. Remember Dr. Miller’s heart-healthy prescription, “thirty minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter daily.” Your heart, and every system in your body, will thank you.
Marilyn Sprague-Smith, M.Ed. is an award-winning consultant, trainer, professional speaker, author & certified laughter leader. She is 1 of only 6 people in the world authorized by The World Laughter Tour to deliver laughter leader certification training. For more information visit www.miraclesmagicinc.com or www.worldlaughtertour.com.