TUESDAY, Nov. 11, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Throw on a little Bach, Beatles or Beyonce, and then sit back and relax in the knowledge that your blood vessels are expanding wide open, letting the blood flow freely.
Nothing could be healthier for your heart, a new study suggests.
"Listening to music that makes you feel good may also be a good preventive measure for heart health," said study author Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in Baltimore. "There's no downside. It's simple, economic and it may pay off dividends in regard to a healthy heart."
Added Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention director of the Stress Testing Laboratory at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans: "Although this was just an acute [short-term] study, it suggests that laughter and listening to relaxing music may provide cardioprotection or be heart-healthy. I suspect that the authors are correct in this theory. But the important thing to know is whether regular performance of this or similar activity would have long-term benefits on the cardiovascular system, similar to, superior, or additive to such things as regular aerobic exercise that has been extensively studied and proven to have substantial long-term benefits."
Miller, who presented the findings Tuesday at the American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions, in New Orleans, said many people look at heart health in terms of negative risk factors that need to be overcome. "There are not a lot of positive risk factors," he noted.
Previous studies had found that music could affect heart rate and blood pressure. Prayer has also been shown to improve cardiac performance. And Miller's group previously found that laughter improved vascular health.
For the new study, 10 healthy, nonsmoking volunteers (70 percent of them men with a mean age of 36) selected music that made them feel good and other music that made them feel anxious. Selections differed according to the person. Participants also were asked to look at humorous video clips and relaxation audio tapes.
The researchers measured brachial artery flow, in the forearm, using a blood pressure cuff, before and after each "stimulus."
"In the minute after you release [the rubber bulb], you see how the inner lining of the blood vessel reacts, the endothelial response," Miller said. "People with risk factors for heart disease like smoking and hypertension don't dilate normally. We believe that means that their vasculature is not healthy."
Among the study participants, brachial artery flow increased 26 percent during the joyful music phase and decreased 6 percent after listening to anxiety-producing music.
Blood flow also increased 19 percent during the laughter (video clip) phase and 11 percent during relaxation.
The increase in dilation seen after listening to joyful music was "about the same level we see after someone does aerobic activity. It's also similar to what we see after taking statin medication," Miller said. "The effect lasts for about an hour."
The positive effect may come from the release of endorphins, Miller speculated, referring to the body chemicals that block pain and ease anxiety and depression.
"Clearly, the role of psychological risk factors, and particularly psychological stress, has been neglected in preventive cardiology," Lavie said. "Clearly, extreme emotional stress -- the classic example is public speaking, especially for novice speakers -- has the exact opposite effects as what Miller showed with laughter and relaxing music. Acute and chronic job stress also has deleterious effects which could be countered by laughter or relaxing music."
Visit the American Heart Association for more on stress and heart disease.