Meditation Linked to Health Benefits, Again

A new study suggests that cultivating compassion through meditation can lead to reductions in the body’s inflammatory and emotional responses to stress, which are linked to a variety of mental and physical illnesses. The study, led by Dr. Charles Raison, clinical director of Emory University’s Mind-Body Program, divided 61 college students into two groups: one participated in compassion meditation classes based on a Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice, while the other took part in health discussions. While little difference was found between the stress responses of the two groups, the researchers did find that the more hours students in the training group spent meditating, the less severe were their bodies’ inflammatory and emotional reactions to psychological stress.
“It will require conducting stress tests before and after meditation training in order to conclusively show it was the practice of compassion meditation that resulted in reduced stress responses,” says Thaddeus Pace, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory. “But these initial results are quite exciting. If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease, and diabetes.” Based on these findings, Pace and his colleagues will offer compassion meditation classes to patients at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and the researchers are teaming with the Emory Predictive Health Institute for a series of studies on the potential long-term health benefits of compassion meditation. —Stephen Mapes


Moms of Dying Newborns Tune Out Doctors

Most new mothers who give birth to terminally ill or severely premature babies tend to tune out their discussions with doctors about what treatment options are available, as well as the predictions of morbidity and death, and let their decisions about life support be guided by things like hope, religion, and spirituality, according to a new study published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics. The researchers, from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, interviewed 26 mothers whose babies died shortly after birth and found that what these mothers remembered doctors telling them was often very different from what the doctors recorded in the medical charts.
Few of the moms remembered discussing options for delivery room resuscitation with doctors, and even fewer remembered being offered comfort care as an option—even though doctors documented that these options were discussed. According to the study, some of the moms “felt that they had not made any decisions regarding resuscitation and instead ‘left things in God’s hands.’ These parents typically were documented by staff members to ‘want everything done.'”
One problem, it’s believed, is that these complex discussions and decisions take place during a time of emotional and physical stress. Another problem is the technical language doctors often use, which many new moms find confusing. “We found that the parents of gravely ill newborns, who are understandably overwhelmed, are quite confused by the often technical and vague ‘doctor speak.’ We, as physicians and caregivers, really need to come up with a clearer way of talking with parents during this incredibly hard time,” Dr. Renee Boss, a neonatologist at the center and the study’s lead researcher (pictured above), said in a news release.
The mothers who were interviewed also said they felt a deeper sense of trust toward doctors who showed emotion during their discussions, regardless of the prognosis they had for the baby. “What this study tells us is doctors should become better at delivering grim prognoses unequivocally, yet compassionately, but many doctors are uncomfortable expressing emotion during such intense moments,” says Dr. Nancy Hutton, head of the pediatric palliative care program at the center, who also worked on the study. “Some doctors might think showing empathy and being positive could give parents a false sense of hope, but there are ways to be hopeful and realistic at the same time, we just need to train doctors to do it better.” —Heather Wax


Many Believe God Can Heal When Doctors Can’t

More than 57 percent of people—and nearly 20 percent of medical trauma professionals—believe that divine intervention could save a person when physicians believe treatment is futile, according to a study in the August issue of the journal Archives of Surgery. The study, led by Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, director of emergency medicine and trauma at Hartford Hospital and a surgery professor at the University of Connecticut, also found that about 61 of the public and 20 percent of professionals believe that a person in a persistent vegetative state could be saved by a miracle. When asked to imagine that they themselves were critically injured, 41 percent of the general public and about 30 percent of professionals said religious beliefs would be very important in making decisions about their own medical care.
Jacobs says that being sensitive to these kinds of beliefs can help doctors establish a trusting relationship with patients and their loved ones—the type of relationships that’s needed if doctors hope to convey complex scientific evidence and paint a realistic medical picture.
The study’s results are based on two surveys, one of 1,000 random adults and the other of 774 medical workers, conducted in 2005. —Heather Wax


Doctor Says Physicians Must Treat Body & Soul

Dr. Yoel Abells writes about the evolving relationship between the medical profession and religion in his most recent column for Canada’s National Post—glad to see that medicine is moving away from the technology-centric approach of the 20th century, which left many patients emotionally unsatisfied, and back to an earlier approach that integrated religious and spiritual elements. The “period of religious and spiritual ‘rejectionism’ was eating at the heart of medicine,” he writes. “To those who viewed medicine as more than just a vocation, this reality was profoundly unpleasant.” In his view, doctors “must learn to attend to both the body and the soul.”
To that end, Abells—along with the rest of his medical school classmates—chose to commit themselves to the Prayer of Maimonides rather than the Hippocratic Oath during their graduation ceremony. “Almighty God,” goes the prayer, “Thou has created the human body with infinite wisdom. Ten thousand times ten thousand organs hast Thou combined in it that act unceasingly and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty the body which is the envelope of the immortal soul. They are ever acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. … Almighty God! Thou hast chosen me in Thy mercy to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures. I now apply myself to my profession. Support me in this great task so that it may benefit mankind, for without Thy help not even the least thing will succeed.”
The religious and spiritual words, says Abells, were inspiring. “They gave context (why we should practice medicine) and texture (how medicine should be practiced). They defined the art of medicine for us, guiding us in our approach to patients,” he says. “We realized that if the science of medicine is not transcended by spirituality, it is like a body without a soul, fixed and lacking in substance. It is compassionless rather than compassionate, robotic rather than human.” —Heather Wax

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