Laughter may be the best medicine when it comes to heart disease, new research suggests.
Laughing regularly at comedy shows could improve symptoms of the condition and potentially reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Scientists in Brazil found that heart disease patients who laughed at funny shows twice a week experienced reduced inflammation and an increase in the heart’s ability to pump oxygen throughout the body.
Experts said the research raised the “interesting possibility” that laughter therapy may become more widely available on the NHS in future, to help some of the 7.6 million Britons with heart disease.
Laughter yoga is already available in health services in some areas, usually for people with anxiety or depression, but not specifically for heart patients.
Previous studies have shown that laughing increases “happy hormones,” endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. It can also stimulate immunity and the body’s natural defense systems.
The latest research was presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Amsterdam this weekend.
The study involved 26 adults with an average age of 64, all of whom had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, caused by plaque buildup on the wall of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
Over a three-month period, half of the patients were asked to watch two different hour-long comedy shows each week, including popular sitcoms.
The other half watched two different serious documentaries every week, on topics like politics or the Amazon jungle.
By the end of the 12-week study period, the comedy troupe saw a 10 percent improvement in their VO2 max, a test that measures how much oxygen the heart can pump through the body.
They also showed improvements in flow-mediated dilation tests, which measure how well arteries can expand.
And blood tests revealed they had “significant reductions” in inflammatory biomarkers, which indicate how much plaque has built up in blood vessels and whether people are at risk of heart attack or stroke.
Lead author Professor Marco Saffi, from the Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre in Brazil, said: “Our study found that laughter therapy increased the functional capacity of the cardiovascular system. It is a good intervention that could help reduce that inflammation and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Laughter helps the heart because it releases endorphins, which reduce inflammation and help the heart and blood vessels relax. It also reduces levels of stress hormones, which put pressure on the heart.”
Heart disease causes 160,000 deaths a year, one in four of all deaths in the UK.
It occurs when the blood supply to the heart is blocked or interrupted by a buildup of fatty substances in the coronary arteries, which can cause fatal heart attacks.
Patients with this condition often experience everyday symptoms including chest pain and shortness of breath, and are also at risk of heart failure.
Drugs like statins can help, while some patients need surgery to widen an artery.
But Prof Saffi said laughter therapy could in future be a treatment offered to help patients in nursing homes and hospitals, as well as those with heart conditions living in the community.
“They don’t have to be TV shows – people with heart conditions could be treated to comedy evenings or encouraged to enjoy fun evenings with friends and family. People should try to do things that make them laugh at least twice a week,” she stated.
Professor Saffi told reporters that laughter is good for both the brain and the heart, and could even improve patients’ adherence to medical treatments.
“We know that when people are happier, they are more compliant with their medication,” he added.
The study could only show an association between laughter and improvement in symptoms, but did not prove that one caused the other.
Professor James Leiper, Associate Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: “While this study reveals the exciting possibility that laughter may in fact be a therapy for coronary artery disease, this small trial will need to be replicated to better understand how it works. how laughter therapy may be helping these patients.
“It’s encouraging to see that something so simple and widespread could benefit our health, but more research is needed to determine whether laughter alone produced the observed improvements and how long the effects might last.”