MADISON - It may be that in spring, a young person's fancy turns to thoughts of love. But under some circumstances, falling in love may not be all it's cracked up to be.
That's the tongue-in-check message heart physiologist Richard Moss likes to deliver to medical students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"The faster your heart beats, the shorter your lifespan," says Moss, chair of the physiology department and an-award winning teacher at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
"So to live longer, you don't want to be using up heartbeats foolishly."
While Moss notes that rigorous science hasn't yet concluded that becoming infatuated may actually shorten your life, the fact is that humans, like all species, have a fixed number of heartbeats over the course of a lifetime. Statistics show that each human, on average, gets around 1.8 billion beats, says Moss.
And falling in love - that giddy feeling that accompanies infatuation - is one sure way to subtract from the total.
"When you're near that special person, you start to sweat, you don't digest food well and you lose your appetite - your pupils may even dilate," Moss explains in his playful lecture meant to amuse and inform typically serious first-year medical students. "But the most noticeable symptom is usually a racing heart."
Oddly enough, this constellation of symptoms is the same that occurs with the stress-induced "fight-or-flight response." In both cases, an initial exhilarating reaction may end up taking a toll in the long run.
Moss concedes that there can be an upside to falling in love.
"If it leads to a good committed relationship, it will probably be worth, at least for males in terms of a longer life, on average," he says.
The longest-lived people, he notes, are single women.
People should pay attention to any tendency they may have to fall in love over and over again, advises Moss.
"If this happens, you could be using up heartbeats left and right," he says. "The greatest waste of heartbeats may come from unrequited love, when a person falls in love, perhaps repeatedly, without reciprocation."
It may be no coincidence that chocolate is so closely associated with falling in love, says Moss.
"Chocolate in some ways can simulate the sensations we feel when we fall in love because it can produce many of the same symptoms," he says, offering students samples to test the theory. "By eating chocolate you can get that falling-in-love sensation without the emotions."
But not everyone responds to chocolate this way, he notes.
"I suggest that those people take two pieces," he laughs.
When he's not teaching medical students how the heart regulates beating and why is beats more strongly under some circumstances and not others, Moss leads research on inherited heart diseases leading to sudden cardiac death. He also directs the UW Cardiovascular Research Center.