AHA makes 1st-ever statement on meditation: It could be helpful, but no substitute for traditional care

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In its first-ever scientific statement on the subject, the American Heart Association said meditation could be a useful treatment tool for cardiac patients, but the organization was careful not to recommend the practice over traditional medical recommendations.

Meditation dates back 7,000 years, AHA wrote in its statement, but has recently become more popular as a secular and therapeutic practice across the U.S. Around 8 percent of Americans engage in the activity, according to research, and findings from the National Health Interview Survey prompted AHA to conduct a comprehensive review of studies exploring the impact of meditation on cardiovascular health.

“Although studies of meditation suggest a possible benefit on cardiovascular risk, there hasn’t been enough research to conclude it has a definite role,” Glenn N. Levine, MD, said in the statement. Levine chaired the writing group of cardiovascular disease experts and a neurologist that reviewed past research on the topic.

Earlier studies have proven that meditation can have long-term effects on the brain, AHA wrote, and recent years have seen increasing research on the health benefits of the practice. In the National Health Interview Survey, 17 percent of heart disease patients said they’d be interested in participating in a clinical trial of meditation.

Levine’s team reviewed all kinds of meditation, including sitting meditation, mindful meditation, zen meditation, transcendental meditation, loving-kindness and more, according to the statement, but left out yoga, Tai Chi and any other practices that combined mind and body.

The experts found that meditation can be associated with lower stress levels, management of anxiety and depression, improved quality of sleep, overall well-being and lower blood pressure, though scientists still don’t know enough about meditation’s effects on hypertension to make any recommendations.

The group also noted meditation could help smokers quit and might be associated with a decreased risk of heart attack. The latter result, AHA wrote, isn’t a tried-and-true fact.

“There are only a few studies on this, and more studies are needed before any conclusions can be made,” the statement read.

The organization stayed firm on that stance, reminding its readers several times throughout the statement that it wasn’t recommending meditation as a treatment for heart disease. The “golden rule,” AHA wrote, is still living a heart-healthy lifestyle and following medical recommendations.

“Since education on how to meditate is widely available and meditation has little if any risk associated with it, interested people may want to use these techniques, in addition to established medical and lifestyle interventions, as a possible way to lower heart disease risk,” Levine said. “However, it’s important that people understand that the benefits remain to be better established and that meditation is not a substitute for traditional medical care.”

AHA published the scientific statement in its print magazine, the Journal of the American Heart Association.