Want to live longer? Good genes, plenty of exercise, and eating right should help, but you might also want to sit down, close your eyes, and breathe.
There is increasing evidence that meditation is not only good for the soul, but for the body as well. It has been embraced by Western medicine as a powerful tool for lowering stress, reducing chronic pain, and even lowering blood pressure.
Now comes word that it can also prolong your life. A follow-up of two studies of transcendental meditation (TM) conducted in the late 1980s and mid-1990s showed that people who had normal to high blood pressure and who practiced the technique were 23 percent less likely to die than people who did not.
The TM group had a 30 percent decrease in the rate of deaths due to heart disease and stroke and a 50 percent reduced rate of cancer deaths. However, the number of cancers was not large enough in these studies for this to be a significant finding.
TM advocate Robert H. Schneider, MD, of the Maharishi University Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, tells WebMD that one of the most significant findings was that meditation appeared to be as effective as drug therapy for preventing deaths from heart disease.
"None of the conventionally recommended nondrug treatments for hypertension, such as salt restriction, exercise, and even weight loss, have been proven to have an impact on deaths from heart disease," he says. "This is the first time that I am aware of that any nondrug treatment has been shown to do this."
Living in the Moment
There is no denying that meditation has gone mainstream. No longer the exclusive domain of New Age types, more than 10 million Americans now practice some form of meditation on a regular basis. For many, the practice has been recommended by a physician.
At New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, psychologist Patricia Vroom, PhD, teaches meditation to cancer patients. The aim is not to cure their cancer but to help them reduce anxiety and stress.
"Meditation can be very empowering because it really teaches us to live in the moment," she says. "For some patients it is life changing, and for others it ends up being just a way to relax."
Vroom says her research shows that cancer patients who meditate develop better coping skills. Compared with patients who joined support groups, the meditating patients in her study tended to trust themselves more to manage their stress.
"People in the meditation group tended to look within themselves, while the support group patients looked outside themselves," she tells WebMD.
My Meditation Is Better Than Yours
There are many different versions of meditation, but is any one better than another? It depends on who you ask.
Schneider says the new findings offer powerful evidence that TM conveys mortality advantages that other forms of meditation don't. But other experts contacted by WebMD, including Vroom, are skeptical.
One of the studies included in the analysis compared four types of intervention -- TM, another popular meditation technique known as mindfulness meditation, generic instruction in meditation, and educational instruction with no meditation.
Seventy-seven elderly, white adults were included in that study, led by TM advocate Charles N. Alexander, PhD, who died in 1998. The other study was led by Schneider and included 125 blacks who were either taught TM or were given health education without meditation. The original intent of both the studies was to determine if meditation could lower blood pressure or risk or developing high blood pressure in the future. The average follow-up during the study was eight years.
The mortality analysis is published in the May issue of The American Journal of Cardiology.
Which Works Best?
Schneider dismisses the idea that the original studies and the new analysis were biased in favor of the TM approach.
"This study showed what it showed, and it was evidence-based," Schneider says. "This is the first time that a particular meditation technique has been shown to reduce death rates from all causes and from cardiovascular disease."
But Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, PhD, who has written three books on the "mindfulness" technique, says it is unlikely that one meditation conveys more health benefits than another.
"Rather than saying that something doesn't work, I would say that there are data out there to suggest that most of these techniques do work," she says. "There may be as many forms of meditation out there as there are flavors of ice cream. Whether one is better than the other depends on individual taste, but overall they are all basically going to give you some of the sweetness that you desire."
SOURCES: Schneider, R. The American Journal of Cardiology, May 1, 2005; vol 95: pp 1060-1064. Robert H. Schneider, MD, Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, Maharishi University, Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa. Ellen Langer, PhD, professor of psychology, Harvard University, Boston. Patricia Vroom, PhD, psychologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York.