Dr. Dean Ornish
 An Interview with Dr. Dean Ornish

by Randy Peyser

Recognized by LIFE Magazine as one of the fifty most influential members of his generation, Dr. Dean Ornish, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF, and director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in the Bay Area, is the first physician to prove that comprehensive lifestyle changes — including a regimen of yoga, meditation and a vegetarian diet — can reverse even the most severe cases of coronary heart disease without the use of drugs or surgery. 

Now, in his latest book, “Love and Survival,” Ornish once again steps beyond the edge of contemporary medicine, this time focusing on the significance that love and intimacy play in determining our life span.

Randy Peyser: How important are love and intimacy to our overall longevity?

Dean Ornish: I am not aware of any other factor in medicine— not diet, smoking, exercise, stress, genetics, drugs or surgery — that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, or possibility of premature death. Scientific studies show that people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are five times more likely to get sick and to die prematurely compared to those who have a sense of love, connection and community. The need for love and intimacy is a basic human need that’s as fundamental as eating, drinking and sleeping. And we ignore it at our own peril. 

RP: You mention the value of groups in fostering intimacy.

DO: An extended family, a long-term neighborhood, or a church or synagogue used to provide a place where you were seen, and not just the parts of you that were the most likable, but also your darker parts. Those people were there for you, regardless. 

Part of the value of a group is the re-creation of that lost sense of community where people feel safe enough to talk about their experiences without fear of abandonment or rejection. At a feeling level, we all want to be happy. We all want to avoid suffering. We struggle with similar life issues, and when we talk about our issues it gives other people the courage to open up as well. 

RP: You’ve cited studies which show that married people live longer. Does this depend on whether the partners are happy or not in their marriage?

DO: Surprisingly, not. For example, one study at Duke University found that five years after an angiogram, half of those who were unmarried and had no confidant had died, compared to only 20% of those who either were married, or were unmarried but had a confidant. If they were married, but not particularly happily married, they still lived longer than people who weren’t married. Again, I think it comes down to feeling known. Even in an unhappy marriage, at least the person knows you. 

RP: Does betrayal increase your risk of illness?

DO: It all depends on how you react to it. It’s not that we should be without emotional defenses, they serve a function to protect us from pain. But if you have nowhere that feels safe enough to let down those defenses, and you have no one that you trust enough to open up to, then in effect, your walls are always up. If you’ve been hurt or betrayed, there’s a natural fear of opening your heart, but ironically, the same defenses that we think are protecting us are actually killing us, or making us more likely to get sick and die prematurely. I’m hoping this information will give people the courage to begin the process of opening their hearts again.

RP: What does healthy intimacy look like?

DO: Intimacy is anything that takes you out of the experience of feeling separate and only separate. It can come in many forms. Most people think in terms of romantic intimacy, but intimacy can be between friends or family members or even with pets. In fact, in one study, people with heart disease who had a dog had four times less sudden cardiac death than those who didn’t have one. Intimacy can also be on a spiritual level, where prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices can give us the direct experience of feeling like we’re part of something larger that connects us all.

You can only be intimate to the degree that you’re willing to open your heart and make yourself emotionally vulnerable to someone else. In my own case, I am in a committed, monogamous relationship with my wife. Our commitment to each other creates a sacred space — sacred meaning the most special, a place where we feel increasing trust and safety with each other. We have that intentionality, that commitment to open our hearts wider and wider as we begin to trust each other more and more. And as we do, the level of joy and intimacy and ecstasy is like nothing I’ve ever even dreamed of.

Advantage\10, Ornish’s line of heart-healthy foods is available at health food stores around the country. For more information, visit his upcoming web site: http://www.ornish.comor call 800-775-7674.

As an added service, this author's books and tapes are available to you at a significant discount.



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