Research from Tennessee State University has previously indicated that touching, and massage have long term heath benefits because they trigger the production of higher levels of immunoglobulin A, a chemical that helps increase the number of white cells in the blood and so boosts the immune system.
More recently, an experiment by psychologist Karen Grewen of the University of North Carolina (UNC) has demonstrated that a brief hug and 10 minutes of handholding with a sexual partner can help to reduce the harmful physical effects of stress.
Grewen gathered together a test group which consisted of 100 adults with their partners (the huggers) and 85 participants who were separated from their partners (the loners). The huggers were told to hold hands while viewing a pleasant 10-minute video and then asked to hug for 20 seconds. The 85 loners watched the video on their own.
Afterwards all the participants were asked to speak for a few minutes about a recent event that had made them feel angry, or stressed. Speaking about emotive issues drives up blood pressure and heart rate in everyone, but Grewen found that measurements were significantly higher in the group who had watched the video alone. They exhibited greater signs of stress. Their blood pressure had soared to more than double compared to the huggers, and their heart rate had increased by 10 beats a minute compared to five beats a minute for huggers.
As high blood pressure and a rapid heart rate are both associated with heart attack Grewens suggests that couples, particularly older couples (who generally have a higher risk of heart problems), should make daily hugging and hand holding a priority.