Meditating -- the practice of quieting the mind and focusing inwardly for a set period of time -- is an ancient practice that’s gained modern credibility as a way to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and boost memory, concentration and mood. But can it actually help you live a longer life?
There is scientific evidence that regular meditation can improve psychological conditions like anxiety and depression, which in turn can affect mortality. Meditating has been shown to bolster the immune system and reduce levels of cortisol. Elevated levels of this stress hormone are linked to higher mortality through heart-related conditions, such as atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome. Other research has found that regular meditation may result in fewer visits to the doctor and shorter hospital stays. Even dangerous abdominal fat may be reduced with regular meditation practice, according to a small study published in 2011 in the Journal of Obesity.
Aimed at examining the effect of meditation specifically on mortality, a review of two randomized controlled trials was published in 2005 in The American Journal of Cardiology. A total of 202 subjects with mild hypertension, or high blood pressure, were recruited in the first study from a residence for elderly people (mean age 81) in Boston, MA, and from community-dwelling older adults (mean age 67) in Oakland, CA in the second trial. Subjects were given instruction in Transcendental Meditation (TM), mindfulness training, mental relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation techniques. The control subjects were offered general health education classes.
Transcendental Meditation is described as a simple technique that involves sitting comfortably with eyes closed, 15-20 minutes per session, twice a day, to achieve a state of “restful alertness.” Mindfulness meditation training focuses on breathing, and observing thoughts dispassionately as they arise in the mind. Study subjects using mental relaxation techniques were encouraged to repeat a phrase or verse to themselves during each session. Finally, subjects using progressive muscle relaxation were coached to gradually let go of tension in each major muscle group, to promote an overall state of calm.
All participants were evaluated after three months, at which time the Transcendental Meditation groups from both trials had significantly lower blood pressure than the other meditation or control groups. But it’s the long-term follow-up data that is most dramatic: After an average of 7.6 years (up to a maximum of almost 19 years), the subjects practicing TM were 23% less likely to die of any cause during that period, and 30% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease during the same period. Subjects were 49% less likely to die of cancer during the follow-up period. The authors of the review suggest that the longevity benefits are almost as good as those resulting from drug therapy for hypertension, without the side effects -- though they do not recommend using meditation instead of medication that’s been proven to lower high blood pressure.
According to the authors, this is the first long-term analysis of the effect of non-drug therapies on the mortality rate for people with elevated blood pressure. Two main questions remain: Will meditation improve longevity for people with normal blood pressure, and which type of relaxation or meditation technique provides the greatest longevity benefit? In this review, Transcendental Meditation offered the highest protection against death.
Though future research might answer these questions with certainty, many people are satisfied with the boosts to energy and wellbeing that meditation offers in the short-term. If you’d like to try to incorporate regular meditation practice into your own life, see this course on how to get started.
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