Falling in love can mess with our minds and bodies. It is not an exaggeration to say love is a form of madness, since when we fall in love we frequently exhibit symptoms that mirror mental illness. This psychiatric disorder is necessary to overrule our logic and convince us to stay with someone however inappropriate (anyone?) so our species can reproduce. Love releases a chemical cocktail with the same effect as amphetamines. We feel high, our self-esteem rises and we exhibit obsessive behaviours and thought patterns. Experiments have shown that the insular cortex in the brain is activated, which is the same area linked with fear. Panic, anxiety, high alert, inability to concentrate and obsessive-compulsive behaviour (checking emails all the time, planning conversations and wild speculation) are all manifestations of the love bug.
Because it is so risky to be in love, nature only allows these wild feelings to last two years. After that appreciation, compassion and friendship take over or – just as often – boredom, exasperation and aversion. Even though the two-year tight bond is probably intended to cover the period of raising an infant, these feelings are not age-related. In Iris Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, The Sea Charles Arrowby, a rather arrogant playwright, finds himself living close to his first teenage love. Even though she is barely recognisable in old age he becomes obsessed with her and when she refuses to elope with him, kidnaps her.
In a healthy relationship however, love is a powerful anti-ageing drug.
Here are some of its benefits :
Feeling attracted to someone : Having butterflies when we are near someone we desire improves organ function. Blood flow increases, extra oxygen keeps the heart fit, the metabolism gets a good kick-start and our skin-tone improves.
Holding hands : A study by the University of California found this has an anaesthetic effect.
A hug : Lowers blood pressure, produces oxytocin (the feel-good hormone), combats stress.
During sex : Apart from the calories we burn (100-200 in a half an hour session), sex gives us a healthy glow. This is because during sex our bodies produce extra oestrogen which helps balance our hormone levels and makes the body produce extra collagen – fantastic news for our skin.
After sex : Being in love is enough to reduce stress levels and boost our immune system, but sex once a week has been linked to higher levels of immunoglobulin A (Wilkes University, Pennsylvania) which is a powerful antibody. It reduces the risk of cancer, high blood pressure, strokes and depression. After lovemaking oxytocin helps us relax and we sleep better.
The success of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring Judi Dench shows that older people recognise the experience of falling in love in later life. In fact many people argue true love is not for the young. It is fairly easy to fall in love in our twenties because that is our default setting – in love or out of it – but it is a different experience later on, since our expectations for relationships have evolved. Someone who has, in the words of novelist John Lanchester, “limitless reserves of indifference…the thrilling estuarine boredness of her ‘Yeah’ “– is less likely to be appealing at 60 years old.
Here are some of the advantages of love in later life :
1. People know more who they are and what they want. Getting married young is risky for this reason.
2. People have learnt that selflessness pays off.
3. Although physical attraction is always a factor, it is only one of them, with other factors such as emotional and financial stability high up on the list.
4. Older people are far more able to judge who will make a good partner – often based on bitter experience.
5. Maturity brings certainty about what behaviours we are prepared to accept. Increased financial independence means we can judge whether to pursue a relationship without the interference of other factors.
“I wasn’t really ready for true love until I had worked out what happened to me in my childhood and subsequent awful marriage,” said Tina, a nurse. “And that took two more failed relationships and the death of my mother.”
Love and support from another human being who has our best interests at heart can add years to our lives. Being single is not a disaster (see Does being single shorten your life?) but love and sex are part of who we are, and the benefits they bring – unlike other important factors such as exercise and healthy eating – are ‘for free’.
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