New research suggests being aware of and paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling in the moment is associated with better health.

While the practice of mindfulness has received considerable attention for relieving stress and depression, the new study discovers physical health benefits as well.

Specifically, this practice of “dispositional mindfulness” was found to benefit cardiovascular health in a study by Brown University scientists.

As reported in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found a significant association between self-reported “dispositional mindfulness” and better scores on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, as well as a composite overall health score.

“The study is the first to quantify such an association between mindfulness and better cardiovascular health,” said study lead author Eric Loucks, Ph.D.

Loucks believes the research can promote health because mindfulness can be enhanced with training.

“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.”

Loucks believes the connection between mental processes and physical health is natural as people who are attuned to their present feelings may be better at minding and managing the cravings that often lead to unhealthy choices.

“Being attuned to one’s feelings may help to reduce the desire for salty or sugary foods or cigarettes or even lying on the couch,” Loucks said.

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

In the study, Loucks and his colleagues asked 382 participants in the broader New England Family Study to answer the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).

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.”

The participants also underwent tests to determine ratings on seven indicators of cardiovascular health. The indicators, as suggested by the American Heart Association include smoking avoidance, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose.

The researchers noted the participants’ age, race, sex, education and assessed scores on standardized scales of depression, and sense of control in their lives.

In their analysis of the data, Loucks and his team examined the association between the degree of self-reported mindfulness and the scores on each of the seven cardiovascular health indicators.

Researchers statistically accounted for age, sex, and race, and calculated a composite score of the health indicators.

Participants with high MAAS scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health (as measured by the composite score) 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.

Researchers believe the reason that higher mindfulness were not associate with higher scores for blood pressure or cholesterol may be because neither of those health indicators directly affect how someone feels in a typical moment.

In contrast, smoking, obesity (and closely related fasting glucose), and physical activity are all much more explicitly evident experiences for the self.

Meanwhile, 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 said the next step in his research is to begin testing whether improving mindfulness can improve cardiovascular health indicators. He said 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).

Source: Brown University