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Can you meditate to prevent heart problems?

Taking a course in transcendental meditation, a technique that aims to improve wellbeing and reduce stress, can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes, a study shows.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Recent large studies have shown that there is a link between stress - for example, having a stressful job - and your risk of heart problems, such as heart attacks and strokes. Stress has also been linked to developing heart disease, or making problems caused by heart disease worse if you already have it.

So there’s interest in whether techniques that aim to reduce your stress could also reduce your risk of heart disease, and heart problems like heart attacks and strokes.

Transcendental meditation is an example of a stress-relieving technique. People who practise transcendental meditation describe it as a way of bringing rest to the mind and body, and allowing you to release stress and tiredness.

To explore whether it has any benefits for people at risk of heart problems, researchers looked at 201 African-American men and women with an average age of 59 who already had heart disease, and randomly divided them into two groups.

One group received a course of six one-and-a-half-hour lessons instructing them how to meditate. They then practised transcendental mediation for 20 minutes twice a day, and were given the option to continue to attend regular transcendental meditation meetings. The second group followed a health education program with a health coach, to learn how to manage their health, and were asked to spend 20 minutes a day practising ‘heart-healthy behaviours’ such as exercise, preparing healthy meals, or relaxing. The two groups were both followed for an average of five years, during which researchers recorded how many people in each group died for any reason, or had a heart attack or a stroke.

What does the new study say?

Fifty-two people either died or had a heart attack or a stroke. Twenty of those were people in the group who practised transcendental meditation, and 32 people were in the group who received health coaching.

When researchers compared the two groups, they found that people who meditated were around half as likely as people who had health coaching to die for any reason, or to have a heart attack or a stroke. The more often people practised transcendental meditation, the lower their risk of death or heart problems. People who practised it regularly - at least once a day - were even less likely to die or have heart problems.

The researchers also looked at other signs of heart disease, to see if meditation had any effect on these. People who meditated had lower systolic blood pressure compared with people who had health coaching. But there was no difference in people’s weight, how active they were, or in how likely they were to drink or smoke.

In terms of stress reduction, people who meditated felt less angry and more in control of their anger than people who received health coaching.

These differences remained after researchers accounted for people’s age, gender, and whether they were taking any medications, such as blood pressure-lowering drugs.

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