Mindfulness associated with better health
A new study that measured “dispositional mindfulness” along with seven indicators of cardiovascular health found that persons reporting higher degrees of awareness of their present feelings and experiences had better health. The research suggests that interventions to improve mindfulness could benefit cardiovascular health, an idea researchers can test.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Pay attention to the implication of these new research results: People who pay more attention to their feelings and experiences tend to have better cardiovascular health.
As noted more precisely in a new study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers at Brown University found a significant association between self-reported “dispositional mindfulness” and better scores on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, as well as a composite overall health score. Dispositional mindfulness is defined as someone’s awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment.
The study is the first to quantify such an association between mindfulness and better cardiovascular health, said study lead author Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health. It’s an encouraging link for health promotion, because mindfulness can be enhanced with training.
“Mindfulness is changeable, and standardized mindfulness interventions are available,” Loucks said. “Mostly they’ve been looked at for mental health and pain management, but increasingly they are being looked at for cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, smoking, and blood pressure.”
The connection may come about because people who are attuned to their present feelings may be better at minding and managing the various cravings — for salty or sugary foods or cigarettes or even a spell on the couch — that undermine health, Loucks said. Mindfulness interventions, for example, have already shown efficacy in helping people to quit smoking.
Measuring mindfulness and health
In the study, Loucks and his colleagues asked 382 participants in the broader New England Family Study to answer the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).
MAAS questions, rated on a six-point scale from “almost always” to “almost never” include “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.”
The participants also underwent tests to determine ratings on seven indicators of cardiovascular health, as suggested by the American Heart Association: smoking avoidance, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose. The researchers also noted the participants’ age, race, sex, education and scores on standardized scales of depression, and sense of control in their lives.
In their analysis of the data, Loucks and his team examined the association between the degree of self-reported mindfulness and the scores on each of the seven cardiovascular health indicators, accounting for age, sex, and race. They also calculated a composite score of the health indicators.
Participants with high MAAS scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health (as measured by the composite score) compared to those with relatively low MAAS scores. High vs. low MAAS scores were associated with significantly higher cardiovascular health on four of the seven individual indicators: BMI, physical activity, fasting glucose, and avoiding smoking.
That higher mindfulness did not also associate with higher scores for blood pressure or cholesterol may be because neither of those health indicators directly affect how someone feels in a typical moment, whereas smoking, obesity (and closely related fasting glucose), and physical activity are all much more explicitly evident experiences for the self.
Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable consumption, an indicator of diet quality, showed a positive association with higher MAAS scores, but with too wide a range of uncertainty to be considered statistically significant.
Loucks said the next step in his research is to begin testing whether improving mindfulness can increase cardiovascular health indicators. He said he hopes to launch randomized controlled trials with long-term follow-up (because behavioral interventions often look good in the short term but then don’t last).
In addition to Loucks, the paper’s other authors are Willoughby Britton, Chanelle Howe, Dr. Charles Eaton and Stephen Buka, all of Brown University.
The National Institutes of Health provided support for the study (grant: 1RC2AG036666).
Mindfulness meditation may relieve chronic inflammation
People suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma—in which psychological stress plays a major role—may benefit from mindfulness meditation techniques, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction, originally designed for patients with chronic pain, consists of continuously focusing attention on the breath, bodily sensations and mental content while seated, walking or practicing yoga.
While interest in meditation as a means of reducing stress has grown over the years, there has been little evidence to support benefits specific to mindfulness meditation practice. This was the first study designed to control for other therapeutic mechanisms, such as supportive social interaction, expert instruction, or learning new skills.
A class in stress reduction can be beneficial in many ways, some of which have little to do with mindfulness, according to Melissa Rosenkranz, assistant scientist at the center and lead author on the paper, which was published recently in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity. For example, learning to manage stress by engaging in regular physical activity may be therapeutic.
"We wanted to develop an intervention that was meant to produce positive change and compare the mindfulness approach to an intervention that was structurally equivalent," Rosenkranz says.
The study compared two methods of reducing stress: a mindfulness meditation-based approach, and a program designed to enhance health in ways unrelated to mindfulness.
The comparison group participated in the Health Enhancement Program, which consisted of nutritional education; physical activity, such as walking; balance, agility and core strengthening; and music therapy. The content of the program was meant to match aspects of the mindfulness instruction in some way.
For example, physical exercise was meant to match walking meditation, without the mindfulness component.
Both groups had the same amount of training, the same level of expertise in the instructors, and the same amount of home practice required by participants. "In this setting, we could see if there were changes that we could detect that were specific to mindfulness," Rosenkranz explains.
Using a tool called the Trier Social Stress Test to induce psychological stress, and a capsaicin cream to produce inflammation on the skin, immune and endocrine measures were collected before and after training in the two methods. While both techniques were proven effective in reducing stress, the mindfulness-based stress reduction approach was more effective at reducing stress-induced inflammation.
The results show that behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity are beneficial to people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions. The study also suggests that mindfulness techniques may be more effective in relieving inflammatory symptoms than other activities that promote well-being.
Rosenkranz emphasizes that the mindfulness-based approach is not a magic bullet. "This is not a cure-all, but our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions."
Significant portions of the population do not benefit from available pharmaceutical treatment options, for example. Some of these patients suffer from negative side effects of the drugs, or simply do not respond to the standard-of-care for treatment of the disorder.
"The mindfulness-based approach to stress reduction may offer a lower-cost alternative or complement to standard treatment, and it can be practiced easily by patients in their own homes, whenever they need," Rosenkranz says.