The Cardiovascular Health Secrets of Mindfulness Practitioners

People who practice mindfulness tend to have better cardiovascular health, new research from Brown University suggests.

Not only did researchers see a link between self-reported “dispositional mindfulness” and better scores on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, but a better composite overall health score was seen for the mindful.

Dispositional mindfulness was defined as someone’s awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment.

The study is important because it is the first ever to measure a positive association between mindfulness and better cardiovascular health, says Eric Loucks, study lead author.

And because mindfulness can be enhanced with training, this is a hopeful link for promoting health.

“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.”

Why Mindfulness Might Boost Health

One reason for the connection may be that people who are tuned in to their feelings in the moment might be better at minding and managing various cravings, like urges for salty or sugary foods, a cigarette or a nap on the couch, which undermine health, Loucks said.

Mindfulness interventions, for example, have already shown efficacy in helping people to quit smoking.

In recent studies of western psychological mindfulness, researchers have been trying to define and measure the results of mindfulness primarily through controlled, randomised studies of mindfulness intervention on various dependent variables.

The participants in mindfulness interventions measure many of the outcomes of such interventions subjectively. For this reason, several mindfulness inventories or scales (a set of questions posed to a subject whose answers output the subject’s aggregate answers in the form of a rating or category) have arisen.

The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale

Loucks and his team asked 382 participants to answer the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).

The 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.”

Participants also went through tests to determine ratings on seven indicators of cardiovascular health:

The study controlled for participants’ age, race, sex, education, and scores on standardized scales of depression, and sense of control in their lives.

Significantly Better Cardiovascular Health

Those with high MAAS scores showed an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health 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.

Higher levels of mindfulness did not also associate with higher scores for blood pressure or cholesterol. This may be because neither of those health indicators directly affect how someone feels in a typical moment, whereas smoking, obesity, fasting glucose, and physical activity are all much more explicitly evident experiences for the self.

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 says the next step in his research is to begin testing whether improving mindfulness can increase cardiovascular health indicators. He says 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.

Sources:

1. Loucks, Eric, Britton, Willoughby, Howe, Chanelle, Eaton, Charles, Buka, Stephen
Positive Associations of Dispositional Mindfulness with Cardiovascular Health: the New England Family Study
International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 10.1007/s12529-014-9448-9 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12529-014-9448-9

2. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4)” – Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer (pdf)

3. Miller J., Fletcher K., Kabat-Zinn J. (1995).
“Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders”.
Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry 17 (3): 192–200. doi:10.1016/0163-8343(95)00025-M.PMID 7649463

Top Photo by Helmuts Guigo