WELLNESS
10/24/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2014

When It Comes To Matters Of The Heart, Mindfulness Can Help

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It pays to listen to your heart after all.

A recent study from Brown University, which explored the potential connection between a person's sense of mindfulness and their cardiovascular health, found that those who are more aware of their feelings in the present moment also benefit from a healthier heart. This new data shows that mindfulness, which is a practice that can be learned, might be an effective behavioral intervention method for cardiovascular patients in the future.

The study is the first of its kind to provide quantifiable evidence suggesting that "dispositional mindfulness," someone's awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment, can in fact have a positive impact on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, according to lead author of the study Eric Loucks, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health.

In the study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 382 participants first answered the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), two of which read, "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." They then underwent tests measuring the American Heart Association's seven indicators of cardiovascular health: cigarette smoking, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood sugar levels. Notes on participants' demographic information, depressive feelings and sense of control in life were also recorded.

Loucks and his team paired the self-reported mindfulness information with the cardiovascular test results and discovered that those with higher mindfulness scores had an "83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health." They also found that those with lower mindfulness scores struggled with four of the seven cardiovascular health indicators: body mass index, physical activity, fasting glucose and cigarette smoking.

"Society right now has a lot of factors that promote heart disease, and a lot of the pressures -- whether it's really cheap, high caloric, palatable food, or easy, inexpensive access to cigarettes, or lots of opportunities for sedentary jobs and pastimes -- a lot of that has to do with cravings, craving rest," Loucks told The Huffington Post. "Anthropologically, I think the body craves that because in the past we didn't have opportunities for rest (thousands of years ago), or craving sugar and fat and salt because in the past those weren't easy to come by. Mindfulness has the ability for us to note that craving coming up, be aware of it and perhaps not be owned by it. That's where the interventions like mindfulness meditation come in."

Loucks hopes to see the study performed on a larger scale in the future to further support the findings. In the meantime, he will be working on testing mindfulness interventions and their impact on cardiovascular risk reduction.

Previous research has found that mindfulness also maintains the power to help minimize physical stress by reducing the body's cortisol levels, a hormone that is often associated with sugar cravings and subsequent overeating. A separate survey conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association found that seven out of 10 psychologists recognize mindfulness training methods as "good" or "excellent" strategies for weight loss, which can aid in improving cardiovascular health as well.

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