At a meeting where new drug combinations and cutting-edge heart treatments are usually the discussion du jour, one researcher presented new findings on how a 5,000-year-old approach to health may hold special benefits for today's heart failure patients.
Lead researcher Dr. Bobby Khan and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta studied the addition of an eight-week course of yoga to standard medical therapy in a group of 19 heart failure patients to see if such a regimen would be safe and beneficial.
They found that yoga was not only safe but appeared to improve patients' ability to exercise, lower levels of inflammation, as well as improve overall quality of life.
The findings were presented at the American Heart Association scientific sessions in Orlando. Fla., Monday.
"With heart failure, which is becoming the more and more prevalent condition we're facing as our population gets older, the morbidity and mortality still remain very high, even with all the advances in medical therapy," said Khan, assistant professor of medicine at Emory's division of cardiology.
"This basically means we have to have some other aspects [of treatment] -- maybe nonmedical with some benefits in mortality, but especially in quality of life, because heart failure is difficult to live with."
Dr. Srinivas Murali, director of cardiovascular medicine at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Penn., said yoga does indeed hold promise as such a nonmedical treatment -- particularly since it offers an easy inroad into a healthier lifestyle as well.
"Anybody can do yoga with the proper training and instruction," said Murali, who was not involved with the research. "It's cheap, you can do it at home, and you don't have to join a club to do it."
Khan added that the nature of yoga therapy makes it an ideal entree into physical fitness for heart failure patients.
"Exercise is good in all populations ... but care has to be given to these patients, and you can't have them go from a sedentary lifestyle to heavy exercise," he said. "Yoga is an easier transition to improve overall exercise capacity as patients progress.
The Head-Heart Connection
But aside from the regimen's physical effects, yoga proponents have long maintained that the art's effects on the mind also lead to measurable health benefits.
Scientifically speaking, the link remains unclear, though research has pointed to yoga's benefits in terms of overall quality of life. In a study published last month in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that the breast cancer patients assigned to a yoga regimen showed improvements in quality of life, greater emotional, social and spiritual well-being, and less distress.
And while there exists no evidence that yoga can help treat tumors or heal hearts, Murali said the positive effects of the regimen on the mind should not be discounted.
"Connection between the mind and body is a huge part of yoga, and we're only scratching the surface with respect to mind on health and disease," he said.
"So there is a link there, and I'm not sure that it's been systematically studied and we understand all the details of that relationship. But I think that I would look at yoga as having not only a physical benefit, but if it helps you relax your mind and do other things beyond direct physical benefit, then that will further augment its role in someone with [heart-related] disabilities, such as heart failure."
Khan noted that at least for the heart failure patients involved in the study, the mental benefits of the exercise system were clear.
"There was considerable improvement in their overall ability to do well," he said. "[They had] improved moods and felt better, with not as much depression. ... They slept better, they were more energetic."
Findings Still Preliminary
Khan admitted that the study was preliminary and that more data would be needed before recommendations could be made. Early next year, he said, he hopes to begin a longer study looking at the benefits of yoga on about 100 patients.
But he noted that the findings, at least for now, are promising.
"The early reports show benefits from action," he said. "We need more patients in a follow-up study, and I would like to do a longer follow-up period -- have them continue therapy and then look at other types of analyses. Not only just blood markers but also some imaging and objective analyses on exercise tolerance and improvement."
"I think there is a definite connection between a patient's mental health and their physical health, which is why yoga might have major benefit for heart failure patients," he said. "It stresses that connection between the mind and the body."