Katharine Dunn in Harvard Magazine:
Laugh for Your Lungs’ Sake
Stress headaches, stress fractures, and stress-induced heart attacks already register with the general public. Now new research suggests that the lungs are vulnerable to the effects of stress as well.
“[Poor] lung function is very much a Cinderella disorder,” says Rosalind Wright, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard and a pulmonologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The lungs have been neglected in part, she says, because there’s no clear-cut event like a heart attack to show evidence of their decline. But Wright and her colleagues, drawing on new data, say doctors need to pay more attention to pulmonary function and talk about it with at-risk patients. Recently, in the journal Thorax, they published one of the first studies to show that hostility is a risk factor for poor lung function among older men.
After controlling for factors like smoking, weight, and education level, the researchers found that men who were more hostile at the outset of the study suffered a more rapid rate of decline in their lung function than others. Moreover, the study found that damage to lung function from hostility was comparable to the amount of damage done by cigarettes, an effect even the investigators were surprised to see. That means, says Wright, that doctors can say to patients, “Just as breathing in tobacco smoke can hurt your lungs and lead to ill health, harboring hostility may be harmful.”
The Thorax paper doesn’t specify the ailments that may result from weakened lung function, though there is evidence that a rapid decline on the order of those recorded in the study’s most hostile subjects can lead to lung disease, heart disease, and even early death. The study’s strength, Wright says, is that it uses an interdisciplinary approach involving psychology and medicine, and relies on objective measures of both hostility and lung function.