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The best way to improve heart health may be mindfulness

The practice of meditation and mindfulness scores impressive numbers in a new study authored by a team of Brown researchers

Photo by Richard Asinof

Eric Loucks, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Brown University, is the lead author of a new study that correlates mindfulness with improved cardiovascular health.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/26/14
The practice of mindfulness and meditation holds great promise for reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease, which is still the number one cause of death in the nation. A group of researchers at Brown, led by Eric Loucks, published a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Loucks is now looking to develop ways to develop interventions in the clinical arena.
The findings of Adele Diamond’s research in the development of executive functions and Loucks work on mindfulness seem to suggest a natural collaboration; which part of the efforts around toxic stress diagnosis, treatment and intervention will draw that connection? In the treatment of addiction and recovery of substance abuse, are there avenues for collaboration with mindfulness? In the mapping of health innovation in Rhode Island, will the research by Loucks and his team find a place to belong?
Providence is an emerging center for the practice of mindfulness and meditation, under the leadership of Joanne Friday, a Dharma teacher in the Tiep Hien Order, founded by Buddhist monk and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Friday is also an associate chaplain at the University of Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE – Amidst the noisy clatter and din of Seven Stars on Hope Street, Eric Loucks, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Brown University, and lead author of a new study that correlated “mindfulness” with improved cardiovascular health, stayed focused on the matter at hand: an interview with ConvergenceRI following the publication of the study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, asked 382 participants to answer 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, such as “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my feelings,” on six-point scale, from almost never to almost always.

The participants then underwent tests to determine ratings on several indicators of cardiovascular health – such as smoking avoidance, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol and blood pressure.

The study’s results found strong correlation: participants with high mindfulness scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health.

Mindfulness, Loucks told ConvergenceRI, “is defined as being aware, in the present moment, of what your thoughts and emotions are, in a non-judgmental way.”

The study has created a stir of media attention: articles in Time magazine, Forbes magazine and by The Huffington Post.

For the even-keeled Loucks, the most exciting development was a recent Brown University Grand Rounds presentation for cardiologists at Rhode Island Hospital, which was streamed to Miriam Hospital and Newport Hospital, which was greeted with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism – but had one cardiologist with a large practice asking about ways to refer patients.

Loucks is already planning out ways to research a cardiovascular health intervention.

ConvergenceRI: What do you mean, exactly, by mindfulness?
LOUCKS:
Typically, mindfulness is defined by being aware, in the present moment, of what your thought and emotions are, in a non-judgmental way.

There are a number of definitions, but what it tends to boil down to is: you being aware of the present moment.

ConvergenceRI: Is it similar to the Buddhist concept of ordinary mind? What the poet Allen Ginsberg talked about in his theory of writing, “Notice what you notice. Catch yourself thinking.”
LOUCKS:
I am not familiar with that concept. With mindfulness, it’s a way of paying attention; it’s an awareness, in a non-judgmental way.

As an example, say I get pretty anxious when I drink coffee. But I’ve been drinking it for the last 20 years. For the last five years, I’ve beat myself up about it. Yet, when I wake up in the morning, I feel agitated, so I have another cup of coffee.

With mindfulness, I’m noticing that I feel agitated, and that may be due to the coffee. But I’m not trying to judge myself or beat myself up.

ConvergenceRI: Is this the first study of its kind?
LOUCKS:
It’s the first study that looks at the association of mindfulness with cardiovascular health. It looks at the positive side of cardiovascular health instead of the just the risks.

ConvergenceRI: Can you now take the results of the study and apply it to clinical practice?
LOUCKS:
I’m actually developing an intervention now for cardiovascular risk reduction, looking at hypertension. One thing about mindfulness, it’s modifiable, you can change it.

Mindfulness has been used for years in interventions at UMass Medical for mental health and pain management.

I am further customizing its use to cardiovascular risk factors. We’re also looking for people who want to try it out. So, if you know people who have some cardiovascular risk factors, particularly hypertension, have them contact me. We’re looking for participants.

ConvergenceRI: How have cardiologists responded to your study’s findings?
LOUCKS:
I did a Grand Rounds for the Brown Department of Cardiology last week at Rhode Island Hospital, which was streamed live to Miriam and Newport hospitals, too.

It generated some interest from physicians and cardiologists. Just from that talk, a number of cardiologists came up and asked me questions. One, who has a large practice, said he would be happy to refer patients. It was a very positive experience.

Some people are curious, some are skeptical; it’s a good combination. The research is not there yet to be confident whether it works or not. That’s the really exciting thing for me, as researcher, [to follow up]. I’m willing to put some energy into unpacking this and finding out what’s there.

ConvergenceRI: Are there potentially other interventions, such as toxic stress, as it relates to young children and parents? Is breathing a part of this?
LOUCKS:
We run a family-based mindfulness group, Generations Sangha, meeting once a month, featuring both kids programs and adult programs. On average, about 20 people attend, but we’re always looking to increase our numbers. It’s been going on for about two years.

I think there are lots of opportunities for families; it’s an under-researched area.

We’ve got so many ways to be distracted these days, for kids, and for parents. Mindfulness seems to help with responses to cravings. Mindfulness meditation can really help people notice and know that it’s only a thought, and it will pass, that we don’t always need to act on those thoughts. If you give yourself that space, you’ll be able to take that step back, and let go of that sense of craving for a jelly doughnut.

ConvergenceRI: Are you aware of the work of Adele Diamond with executive functions and early childhood development?
LOUCKS:
I don’t know her work very well, but I attended a session with her at Brown University. She seemed very skilled, very smart, very capable, with a fine ability to communicate.

[The other authors with Loucks on the research study were Willoughby Britton, Chanelle Howe, Dr. Charles Eaton and Stepen Buka, all of Brown University.]

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