For the first time, the American Heart Association (AHA) is issuing a statement on the effects of meditation on the heart. AHA experts reviewed dozens studies analyzing eight different types of meditation and their effects on various heart disease risk factors and outcomes, from heart attack to blood pressure, stress, atherosclerosis and smoking cessation.
Overall, the studies are encouraging, says Dr. Glenn Levine, chair of the AHA and American College of Cardiology task force on clinical practice guidelines. But the data isn’t conclusive enough to justify a recommendation for or against meditation in reducing heart disease risk. For now, meditation, which includes mindfulness approaches and Transcendental Meditation, can be considered in addition to existing standard treatment for heart problems, including lowering cholesterol, losing weight and stopping smoking, the group says.
That means that people can include meditation in their heart-healthy strategy, as long as they understand that the data so far does not definitively prove that the practice actually has any benefit. “Our clear message is that meditation may be a reasonable [additional] intervention, but we specifically do not want people to rely on meditation or other such adjunctive interventions in place of proven therapies,” says Levine, who is also professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
Most of the studies looking at meditation and heart disease have involved a small number of people and don’t always have a control group of those who don’t meditate. But they suggest that meditation may help to lower some of the risk factors for heart disease, such as reducing stress and blood pressure. Addressing stress can reduce levels of stress hormones in the body, which have been linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, and keeping blood pressure low can also dampen the risk of heart trouble.
More studies will be needed to solidify what role meditation can play in reducing heart disease, but, says Levine, “we are extremely encouraged by the findings.” That’s why the AHA says that people interested in improving their heart health should consider it, as long as they are doing the other things that have been scientifically shown to lower heart disease risk.