The small pilot study included 23 recently hospitalized black patients. Thirteen were taught the techniques of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and asked to practice it for six months. The remaining patients received educational training about their heart disease without instruction on meditation.
Changes in a six-minute walking test at three and six months were measured by the researchers, as were changes in mood, quality of life, stress, and depression.
University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Ravishankar Jayadevappa, PhD, who led the study team, tells WebMD that the patients who meditated showed significant improvements in depression and on the six-minute walking test. The six-minute walking test was used to measure functional capacity.
"This is a small study, and it needs to be replicated in a larger trial with a more diverse population," he says. "But it is the first study to look specifically at stress reduction through meditation in African-American patients with congestive heart failure."
What Is Heart Failure?
Each year in the U.S. roughly 500,000 people receive a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, and 300,000 people die from the disease, according to figures from the American Heart Association.
Heart failure is responsible for more than 2.5 million hospital admissions each year in the U.S.
In heart failure, the heart doesn't pump blood as well as it should. This can lead to a backup of fluid in the body, such as in the legs and lungs. It also means that the heart isn't pumping as much oxygenated blood to different areas of the body. This can produce a decrease in tolerance of physical activity due to fatigue and shortness of breath.
Jayadevappa says the pilot study included only blacks because they are more likely than whites to develop heart failure and die from the disease.
Patients in the TM arm of the study were taught the meditation technique over seven consecutive days in daily 1.5-hour sessions. They were then asked to meditate for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.
The remaining patients participated in nonmeditation-based educational training that paralleled the time spent teaching the meditation technique. They were then asked to listen to music or read for 20 minutes, twice each day, as a way to relieve stress.
The researchers reported significant benefits for meditation in terms of physical functioning, as measured by the six-minute walking test, and depression. And just two heart-failure related events were reported in the meditation group during the six-month study, compared with five in the patients who did not meditate.
The findings are reported in the Winter 2007 edition of the journal Ethnicity and Disease. The study was sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Stress Reduction Is Key
Although the researchers evaluated only TM, Jayadevappa says other types of meditation may also benefit heart patients, as long as the practice helps lower stress.
Florida cardiologist Gerald Fletcher, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, tells WebMD that other interventions designed to relieve stress may also help prevent and treat heart disease.
He points to a recent study from Greece suggesting that taking a daily nap can reduce the risk of death from heart disease.
"It is not easy to study the impact of stress reduction on the heart, so we don’t have the hard data to prove unequivocally that meditating or taking naps to relieve stress is beneficial," he says. "But it is certainly something that deserves a more thorough look."