Meditation has long been touted as a means to clear the mind and reduce stress.
What if it could improve heart health at the same time?
The American Heart Association (AHA) isn’t saying that there’s a definitive connection between meditation and heart health. But according to recent research, the volume of evidence is growing.
In the AHA’s first statement on meditation, published last month in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the association says that the practice has potential benefits when it comes to cardiovascular risk.
Researchers reviewed 57 prior studies on meditation, finding that it might be useful in reducing the risk of heart disease. But it’s just one part of the puzzle.
The AHA isn’t ready to recommend meditation to reduce the risk of heart disease, stating that it shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for tried-and-true methods, such as regular exercise.
“Nothing surprised us,” Dr. Glenn N. Levine, chairman of the group of cardiovascular disease experts who reviewed the data for the AHA and professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told Healthline. “I don’t think any of the results can be considered definitive, and going into this we didn’t expect to find definitive data given the limited number of studies and the limited resources most investigators have to look at meditation. Overall, though, we were encouraged by what data and findings there were.”
An age-old practice
Humans have been practicing various forms of meditation for thousands of years.
However, in recent decades it’s gained popularity as a secular practice.
According to the AHA, 17 percent of people with cardiovascular disease showed interest in participating in a clinical meditation trial.
“What led us to investigate is that there are now a good number of studies that have looked fairly scientifically at the health benefits of meditation,” said Levine. “Among them were some that specifically addressed risk factors for heart disease and prevention of heart attacks. Given that we’re always looking for additional ways to decrease heart disease, we thought it was useful to formally and systematically review all the data on meditation and cardiovascular risk.”
One important caveat to the AHA review was that some forms of meditation, such as yoga and tai chi, had to be excluded from their results. The physical activity that these entail is already known to have a positive impact on heart health.
In their review, researchers did include various forms of sitting meditation, including Samatha, Vipassana, mindful meditation, Zen meditation, and others.
These forms of meditation may be associated with decreased levels of stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and a decreased risk of heart attack — although, again, the results aren’t yet definitive.
No risk to meditating
The AHA says that there are little to no risks associated with meditation, so there’s no real harm in incorporating it into your health regimen.
Still, for people who want to improve their cardiovascular health, meditation shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for proven interventions.
Until more research is available on the connection between meditation and cardiovascular risk, the AHA is sticking to its existing recommendations on ways to boost cardiovascular health.
While medical therapies are available for people with high cholesterol, blood pressure, and other risk factors, there are a number of lifestyle choices that can improve heart health.
These include regular physical activity as well as monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
“The first piece of advice we would offer is that the primary way to prevent heart disease are the steps that are recommended by the AHA and other organizations, such as smoking cessation, regular exercise, blood pressure control, and similar,” said Levine. “For those interested in meditation as an adjunctive step to decrease their risk of heart disease, we think that would be a reasonable thing to do as long as they understand that, at this point, we can say the data is suggestive — but not definitive — regarding meditation.”