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Why Love May be the Best Medicine

There are no conferences to attend, no framed degrees or letters following your name. But the role you play may be the most important in the life of a Parkinson’s patient. You’re a caregiver. Sometimes a spouse, sibling, child, or grandchild. Sometimes a union of all 4. And science is only beginning to take notice of the effect you have.

Referred to as “interpersonal neurobiology,” the notion that our relationships can change our brains should come as little surprise to those who have suffered heartbreak or rejection. Just as relationships can cause damage, so too can they heal and cultivate resilient traits.

James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments in 2006 in which he gave an electric shock to the ankles of women in happy, committed relationships. Tests registered their anxiety before, and pain level during, the shocks. Then they were shocked again, this time holding their loving partner’s hand. The same level of electricity produced a significantly lower neural response throughout the brain. In troubled relationships, this protective effect didn’t occur. If you’re in a healthy relationship, holding your partner’s hand is enough to subdue your blood pressure, ease your response to stress, improve your health and soften physical pain.

Diane Ackerman, writing in the NY Times, shares her experience caring for her husband, demonstrating the value of the human touch.

I saw the healing process up close after my 74-year-old husband, who is also a writer, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke that wiped out a lifetime of language. All he could utter was “mem.” Mourning the loss of our duet of decades, I began exploring new ways to communicate, through caring gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, humor, play, empathy and tons of affection — the brain’s epitome of a safe attachment. That, plus the admittedly eccentric home schooling I provided, and his diligent practice, helped rewire his brain to a startling degree, and in time we were able to talk again, he returned to writing books, and even his vision improved. The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.

Has your caregiver made an impact on your wellbeing? We’d love to hear more and invite you to celebrate them in the comments!

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