Google “benefits of meditation” and a stream of articles pop onto your screen. The topics range from health benefits to scientific reasons to meditate, the ways meditation improves your life or changes your brain. Look at scholarly articles, and on the first screen, heart health benefits show up.
But, can meditation impact our physiology? How does a mental and spiritual practice alter the condition of our physically-beating heart? Like diet and exercise, can meditation reduce the risk of heart disease? For those struggling with heart issues or facing family histories of heart disease, it sounds too good to be true.
But, what if it isn’t?
A recent statement from the American Heart Association gives backing to the idea that meditation improves heart health. Specifically, this well-known promoter of heart-healthy living published a comprehensive review of research in the Journal of the American Heart Association with this conclusion — meditation may help lower the risk of heart disease.
What is Heart Disease?
Before we continue, let us get our terms straight. We need to understand exactly what we are talking about. Heart disease or cardiac disease refers to any condition or disorder affecting the heart. Just the heart. Cardiovascular disease impacts the blood vessels and heart. The American Heart Association statement refers to heart disease, not cardiovascular disease.
Common examples of heart disease include:
– Arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat
– Congenital heart disease
– Congestive heart failure
– Dilated cardiomyopathy or a weakened heart
– Myocardial infarction, including heart attack
In Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K. and Australia, heart disease leads the charge in causes of death. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest 28.4 million adults live with a heart disease diagnosis. This number equals 11.7 percent of the adult population.
Furthermore, this condition leads to over 600,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. The numbers indicate that 23.5 percent of all fatalities in this country result from heart disease. If it proves true that meditation lowers these statistics, we could see a rise in the practice.
What Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease?
While risk factors such as age, gender, race and heredity remain fixed, others respond favorably to prevention. Lifestyle changes usually offer the first line of defense against the risks of heart disease. Meditation is becoming one such change.
A healthy diet and regular exercise are recommended by the American Heart Association to decrease the threat through weight loss and diabetes prevention. Stress management lowers risk as well. And, eliminating smoking and restricting alcohol intake to avoid over consumption reduces triglycerides, irregular heartbeats and obesity.
Medications, such as statins, also prove helpful in certain cases. The risk factors of high blood pressure and high cholesterol or triglycerides often require both lifestyle changes and carefully monitored medication therapy. Family histories of heart disease often require the use of this dual modality.
What About Meditation?
Adding the practice of meditation to a daily routine offers promising hope for those at risk of developing or in a current state of heart disease. Studies suggest that this practice impacts the changeable risk factors and thereby, reduces overall risk.
American Heart Association Findings
How do researchers explain the impact of the mental process of meditating on the physical body? The authors of the American Heart Association’s research review recognize the long-standing effects of meditation on the brain. Since the biology of the brain impacts the biology of the physical body, a plausible link arises. In other words, changes in the brain lead to beneficial consequences on physiology.
To further define the results, investigators narrowed the search to meditation practices which involved sitting such as mindful, Zen and transcendental meditation. Mind-body practices were excluded from the review. The reviewers believed the physical activity of yoga, Tai Chi and the like confused the findings as regular exercise also reduces the risk of heart disease.
Other Supportive Research
In support of the Heart Association’s findings, a study published in the International Journal of Yoga reported that mindfulness meditation effectively reduces risk factors in coronary heart disease patients. Anxiety, depression, stress, blood pressure and body mass index decrease with the practice. Participants maintained these gains when checked three months after the study suggesting long-term benefits.
Furthermore, Health Psychology published a study which offers promising conclusions as well. Researchers reported that a mere 20 minutes of daily meditation over 20 days leads to reduced anxiety, depression and blood pressure. A relaxing and soothing effect in heart patients resulted as well.
What Does This Mean?
American Heart Association reviewers (as do many researchers) admit that the quality and quantity of available research needs improvement to further support the findings. They also warn that medical care remains the primary strategy in lowering heart disease risk. However, the low cost and low risk nature of meditation leads these professionals to suggest implementing the practice.
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