Meditation is usually thought of as a practice of healthy, well-off white people and Asians. But newly published research suggests it can produce hugely significant health benefits in a very different demographic group: African Americans with heart disease.
A study that followed 201 African Americans for an average of five years found those who meditated regularly were far more likely to avoid three extremely unwelcome outcomes. Compared to peers participating in a health-education program, meditators were, in that period, 48 percent less likely to die, have a heart attack, or suffer a stroke.
“It appears that Transcendental Meditation is a technique that turns on the body’s own pharmacy—to repair and maintain itself,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, the paper’s lead author and director of the Institute for National Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. His research is published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
The paper was originally scheduled to be published in 2011 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, but was withdrawn just before being posted “to allow time for review and statistical analysis of additional data.” The AHA’s Maggie Francis reports that the paper “went through peer review, statistical review, editorial discussions, and the authors of the article were responsive to the review process.”
Schneider and his co-authors undertook this research in part because African Americans “suffer from disproportionately high rates” of mortality due to cardiovascular disease. As we have reported, this may in part reflect high stress levels, the result of living in a society where racial prejudice continues to linger.
The study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in two phases: From 1998 to 2003, and from 2004 to 2007. Participants were African Americans whose blood flow to the heart was seriously obstructed. Specifically, at least one of their coronary arteries had been narrowed by at least 50 percent.
The patients’ mean age was 59; almost half reported an income of under $10,000. Males slightly outnumbered females. Around 40 percent were cigarette smokers; their mean body mass index was just over 32, making them, on average, clinically obese.
They were randomly divided into two groups. Half took part in a cardiovascular health education program, in which they “were advised to spent at least 20 minutes a day at home practicing heart-healthy behaviors,” including exercise and eating healthy food.
The others were taught the technique of Transcendental Meditation, and encouraged to engage in this activity for 20 minutes each day. “Follow-up and maintenance meetings were held weekly for the first month, biweekly for the next two months, and monthly thereafter,” the researchers write.
The researchers followed up on the participants an average of 5.4 years after they initially joined the experiment. They found those in the meditation group were 48 percent less likely than their peers to have suffered one of three negative outcomes: a heart attack, a stroke, or death from any cause.
“There was a significant association between regularity of home (meditation) practice and survival,” the researchers report. “The subgroup of subjects who were regular in their TM practice had a 66 percent risk reduction, compared with the overall sample risk reduction of 48 percent.”
Regular meditators also reduced their blood pressure, on average, and reported feeling less anger than they did before beginning the experiment.
“This trial did not address the effects of other mind-body, meditation-type interventions on clinical events,” the researchers note. So it’s not clear if these apparent health benefits were the result of some specific aspect of Transcendental Meditation, or would apply to any regimen involving deep breathing and clearing one’s mind.
Nevertheless, as the researchers note, this appears to be the first randomized, controlled trial to find the risk of mortality, heart attack and stroke declined “with the individual practice of a relatively simple mind-body intervention.”
It’s some of the clearest evidence yet that reducing stress through regular meditation can have a positive effect on one's physical health.