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Quiz yourself

Why love hurts

Popular wisdom holds that love is in the air, that it makes the world go 'round, and that it's something that is better to have had and lost than... well, you know. Love is many things, but apparently it is not for the faint of heart.

Falling in love is as much a physical reaction as it is an emotional one. In fact, the "symptoms" of being smitten - rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, dilated pupils - are the same as those of the "fight or flight" stress response we have in reaction to an adrenaline surge. Love is also mind-altering - researchers report that brain images of people looking at a picture of their beloved resemble those of people high on cocaine.

It's no surprise, then, that the mind and body are affected when love is unrequited or a romance goes sour. The impact on a person's mood and behaviour can be dramatic. In various stages of love, people exhibit signs of mania (elevated mood, inflated self-esteem), depression (insomnia, tearfulness, loss of concentration), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (preoccupation, frequent checking for e-mail and text messages, pre-date hygiene rituals). Indeed, for thousands of years, lovesickness was accepted as a legitimate medical diagnosis, which gives the term "madly in love" a new dimension.

Love can also be a real pain... in the heart. In 2005, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine reported that sudden emotional stress can cause severe but reversible weakness of the heart muscle. Stress cardiomyopathy, nicknamed "broken heart syndrome," occurs when the heart is temporarily "stunned" by a prolonged surge in adrenaline and other stress hormones (exactly how isn't yet known ). Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, fluid in the lungs, and heart failure, and are most often displayed by middle-aged or elderly women. Patients are often misdiagnosed as having a massive heart attack. Fortunately, unlike those who have had a heart attack, they recover completely within two weeks and there is no lasting damage to the heart.

That doesn't mean the lovelorn are out of danger. Studies show that it is possible to die of a broken heart. The first and most-cited report appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1969. Researchers followed 4,500 widowers aged 55 and older for 9 years. The risk of dying in the first 6 months after the death of a spouse was 40% higher than usual, with the most common cause being a heart attack. As time went on, the risk decreased to normal levels.

These findings are supported by a larger study published in 1996. Researchers analyzed data from 1.5 million people aged 35 to 84. The risk of dying from a heart attack within the 6 months following a spouse's death was 20-35% higher than normal, while the chances of dying from an accident, alcohol-related problems, or violence was 100% higher.

Before you decide to join a monastery, however, rest assured that it's not all bad news. Decades of research show that people who are happily married live longer than singles. They enjoy better mental and emotional well-being, have lower rates of cancer, heart failure, and other diseases, and are less likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. They also have greater collective wealth and a larger support network, and are less likely to smoke and drink heavily.

It takes time to find the right partner, but you can enjoy these benefits, too, if you survive the initial throes of passion and heartache. It seems that the prevailing theories are correct: of all the things that have been claimed about love, nobody ever said it was easy.


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