Study: Hugging Warms The Heart, And Also May Protect It

PHOENIX (USA TODAY) -- Cuddling may be good medicine for the heart.

A brief hug and 10 minutes of handholding with a romantic partner greatly reduce the harmful physical effects of stress, according to a study reported over the weekend at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting here.

Loving contact before a tough day at work "could carry over and protect you throughout the day," says psychologist Karen Grewen with the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In the study, 100 adults with spouses or long-term partners were told to hold hands while viewing a pleasant 10-minute video, then asked to hug for 20 seconds. Another group of 85 rested quietly without their partners.

Then all participants spoke for a few minutes about a recent event that made them angry or stressed. Typically, asking people to revisit these scenes drives up heart rate and blood pressure. After the talk:

Blood pressure soared in the no-contact people. Their systolic (upper) reading jumped 24 points, more than double the rise for huggers, and their diastolic (lower) also rose significantly higher.

Heart rate increased 10 beats a minute for those without contact compared with five beats a minute for huggers.

This is the latest of many studies suggesting humans are "hard-wired" to thrive as social animals, says Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. Field's research shows touch lowers output of cortisol, a stress hormone. When cortisol dips, there's a surge of two "feel good" brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine.

U.S. couples aren't very "touchy-feely" in public, Field says. Her studies in U.S. and Parisian cafes show that French couples spend about three times as much time touching as Americans.

Comforting physical contact is out of favor among friends and co-workers because of the legal climate, she says. "If you happen to touch someone at the fax machine, you run the risk of being sued."

Some studies have indicated that touch among friends might be helpful but doesn't produce nearly as much physical stress relief as contact with a partner, says psychologist Kathleen Light, co-author of the UNC study.

The findings suggest one reason that isolated, lonely people tend to have poorer health, says Ohio State University psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. Although ours is a youth-oriented culture, older adults may benefit most from touch, she says.

"The older you are, the more fragile you are physically, so contact becomes increasingly important for good health."

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