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Meditation Halves Risk of Heart Attack

Meditation can cut the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death by almost 50% in patients with existing coronary heart disease, according to a new clinical trial. The findings indicate that relaxation and mental focusing can be as effective as powerful new drugs in treating heart disease.

Over the past 4 decades, scientists have found many hints that transcendental meditation--the most widely used meditation technique--can confer a variety of health benefits. The technique, which was invented by an Indian guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and grew to popularity after the Beatles practiced it in the 1960s, requires the practitioner to focus on repetitions of a single sound or mantra, such as a phrase from Hindu scripture. Transcendental meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve mental focus in college students. It's unclear, however, whether any of these benefits translate to overall health.

In the first study to test the effect of transcendental meditation on the risk of heart attack, preventive medicine specialist Robert Schneider of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, collaborated with endocrinologist Theodore Kotchen of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. They enlisted 201 patients with narrowed coronary arteries--a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. All volunteers were African American, a high-risk group for heart disease.

The patients were randomly assigned to two groups, both of which were given a standard treatment of prescription drugs for high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, as well as an educational course in cardiovascular health. The team asked one of the groups to also practice transcendental meditation for 15 to 20 minutes a day, following instructions from meditation experts.

Over 5 years (and up to 9 years for some patients), the patients who practiced transcendental meditation on top of standard treatment experienced 47% fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths compared with the control group. For comparison, statin drugs, which reduce cholesterol levels, tend to lower the risk of life-threatening events by 30% to 40% relative to existing treatments. Common blood pressure drugs reduce these outcomes by 25% to 30%. In all, transcendental meditation has proved as powerful as any new class of heart disease medications entering the market, says Schneider.

The reason for such a dramatic improvement isn't obvious, but the researchers note that the meditating patients had lower blood pressure, a key risk factor for heart attacks and stroke. Past studies have also indicated that meditation reduces stress hormone levels and dampens the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the body's stress response. "We've shown that the brain has a direct positive influence on clinical outcomes," says Schneider, whose team presents its findings today at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Florida.

The study is "excellent work" and a "great start," says cardiologist Sabahat Bokhari of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. However, the dramatic improvements seen in the trial may not translate to other ethnic groups, he cautions, especially those at much lower risk of heart disease than African Americans.

Cardiologist Herbert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston also praises the study, but he says that other stress-reducing techniques, such as yoga or even prayer, may have just as powerful an effect.