Mindfulness Isn't Just Mind Medicine, It's Also Good For Your Heart

David DiSalvo, Forbes 10/26/2014

New research has found a convincing link between mindfulness and improved cardiovascular health. Researchers from Brown University say they’ve uncovered evidence suggesting that “dispositional mindfulness” is directly associated with scores on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, and better health overall. Dispositional mindfulness is defined by the researchers as “an awareness of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.”

Most research on the health benefits of mindfulness has focused on mental health and pain management. But this study, lead-authored by Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology, asked whether tangible heart-health factors like blood pressure, obesity and fasting blood-glucose might also be influenced.

Research participants, all part of the larger New England Family Study, were asked to answer 15 questions from a questionnaire designed to measure mindfulness, called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).  Questions are phrased to assess how well someone can tune into what’s going on internally in any given moment, such as “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention,” with responses ranked on a six-point scale ranging from “almost always” to “almost never”.

The participants also underwent an assessment to gauge their cardiovascular health across seven indicators: level of physical activity, avoidance of smoking, body mass index (BMI), fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, and blood pressure.

The results showed that people with the highest MAAS scores had an 83 percent higher level of overall cardiovascular health, with particularly high scores on four indicators: level of physical activity, avoidance of smoking, fasting blood glucose and BMI. The results held true when controlling for other factors like age, sex, education and race.

In practical terms, these results suggest that a heightened ability to notice and address moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings is like having an in-built health intervention mechanism; positive health behaviors are boosted while negative behaviors are undermined.

It makes sense, the researchers added, that cholesterol and blood pressure wouldn’t show a direct influence from mindfulness since neither can be affected by moment-to-moment changes in thinking, although they may benefit from longer-term changes across other indicators. Level of fruit and vegetable consumption showed a positive but not statistically significant correlation.

Professor Loucks explained to me by email that there are a few different ways we might choose to elevate our dispositional mindfulness, including formal routes like mindfulness training or increasingly popular classes in Hatha yoga, which strongly stress a mindfulness component.

“The primary method researched to date to develop mindfulness is mindfulness meditation itself, which can be trained through secular programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR),” says Loucks. “MBSR is offered in thousands of medical and community settings around the world. The developers of MBSR also recently released an online course that is more affordable, although the effectiveness has not yet been assessed.”

Loucks added that physical activity itself might offer greater access to mindfulness, particularly forms that require tuning into our internal landscape. “As an illustration, I used to race in triathlons at a fairly high level. The races would be over two hours, as often would be my training sessions. I think this may have been my gateway into mindfulness practice, as I found myself helped by constantly monitoring where my thoughts and body were, in order to maximize performance. If, for example I was moving into anaerobic territory, I would note that, and pull back on my pace; similarly, when I found my mind wandering to something else, my pace could slow and I would note that, and bring my attention back to my mind and body to maintain optimal performance.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that mindfulness isn’t a set or predetermined factor — it’s something we can affect. “Mindfulness is changeable,” according to Loucks, “and mindfulness interventions are available.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.