In a small preliminary study, the ancient art of yoga appeared to halve the number of episodes of a potentially dangerous irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation.
Three sessions of yoga a week also improved quality of life, lowering levels of the anxiety and depression which often plagues patients with this condition, according to research to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.
"These are exciting results," said Dr. Raul Mitrani, director of the cardiac rhythm device clinic at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Although it didn't cure atrial fibrillation, he added, it did seem to cut the number of "a-fib" episodes.
Prior research had shown other heart benefits of yoga, such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol and more elastic arteries, but this is the first study looking specifically at atrial fibrillation, said the authors, from Mid-America Cardiology at the University of Kansas Hospital.
Atrial fibrillation, which affects millions of older Americans, is an irregular heartbeat that greatly raises odds for clotting and stroke. Treatments tend to be either invasive surgery (to try to eliminate the abnormality at its origin) or medications that carry side effects. Some lifestyle tactics are also helpful, Mitrani said, such as moderating alcohol and caffeine to reduce triggers.
In the new trial, 49 patients between the ages of 25 and 70 who had atrial fibrillation participated in a supervised yoga program, conducted 45 minutes a week, three times a week for three months. Sessions involved breathing exercises, various positions (asanas), meditation and relaxation. The participants were also given an educational DVD and encouraged to practice daily at home.
During the three months of yoga practice, participants experienced an average of 2.1 episodes of atrial fibrillation as compared to an average of 3.8 episodes occurring the three months prior to the start of classes, when they were exercising but not yet doing yoga.
"Advanced yogis for a long time have disproven the idea that heart rate that automatically determined by physiological need," noted Dr. Scott Shurmur, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "We know that meditation, yoga etc, really do provide some conscious altering of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This is the first time I've seen results on atrial fibrillation and its tangible evidence."
"Absolutely, yoga can play a role in the management of atrial fibrillation," says Dr. Louis Teichholz, medical director of the cardiac service and chief of complementary medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, who points to the breathing component of yoga -- especially Prana yoga -- as the key ingredient.
"If they had studied heart rate variability, they would have shown this decreases sympathetic nervous system activity," he said. "That comes with fear and fright. A sudden burst of adrenaline in a susceptible individual will trigger arrhythmia."
A second study being presented at the meeting backed up the value of exercise in general for heart health.
Texas researchers report that a lifetime of regular exercise keeps the human heart flexible and strong, well over retirement age.
In fact, long-term exercise actually preserves heart muscle mass, keeping it at the same level as a sedentary person aged 25 to 34, the team estimated.
In the study, people over the age of 65 who reported having exercised consistently over their lifetime actually managed to preserve left ventricular mass. The left ventricle of the heart is involved in pumping and normally gets smaller as you age.
The folks in this study had exercised six or seven times a week as adults but the researchers, from the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, believe that getting people in the midrange of their life -- 45 to 60 -- could help prevent heart failure and other cardiac problems which tend to appear as you get older.
Experts stress that data presented at medical meetings has not undergone the rigorous peer review that is conducted when research is published in medical journals and should be considered preliminary.
Find out more about atrial fibrillation at the American Heart Association.
SOURCES: Scott Shurmur, M.D., director, preventive cardiology, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha; Raul Mitrani, M.D., director, cardiac rhythm device clinic, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; April 2, 2011, presentation, American College of Cardiology annual meeting, New Orleans