Home > Skepticism > Transcendental Meditation reduces cancer risk?

Transcendental Meditation reduces cancer risk?

A study on the effects of Transcendental Meditation (TM from now on) was published a couple days ago. First, what TM is:

Transcendental Meditation (TM®) is a set of Hindu meditation techniques introduced to the Western world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, dubbed the “giggling guru” because of his habit of constantly giggling during television interviews. TM allegedly brings the practitioner to a special state of consciousness often characterized as “enlightenment” or “bliss.” The method involves entertaining a mantra, an allegedly special expression which is often nothing more than the name of a Hindu god. Disciples pay hundreds of dollars for their mantras. They are led to believe that theirs is special and chosen just for them. The claim of uniqueness for the mantra is just one of many questionable claims made by TM leaders.

The Skepdic article has quite a bit of information, as well as the results of a study that wasn’t particularly favorable to TM. Now, a new study of its effects has been published in the American Journal of Cardiology. Here’s an article detailing the findings:

Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, a non-drug relaxation or stress-reduction method, reduces death rates by 23% and extends lifespan in the elderly, according to a study published in the May 2, 2005 issue of American Journal of Cardiology.

Researchers evaluated 202 men and women aged at 71 on average with mildly elevated blood pressure. Participants were involved in the Transcendental Meditation program; behavioral techniques, such as mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation; or health education for up to 18 years. Vital statistics were obtained from the National Death Index.

The study found that compared to combined controls, the TM group showed:

• 23% reduction in the rate of death from all causes
• 30% reduction in the rate of death from cardiovascular disease
• 49% reduction in the rate of death from cancer

So, what to make of this? Meditation, as with any relaxation technique, reduces stress. It’s not a stretch to say it will reduce blood pressure, too and maybe some forms of cardiovascular disease. But cancer? That’s a bit unbelievable. If the study is solid, though, maybe it’s not so unbelievable.

First problem here, as was pointed out on IIDB, is that the study is very small. 202 subjects total. Secondly, the majority of their comparsions are not statistically significant. For example, the p value for TM vs. usual care with regards to overall all mortality is .21. P values are a measure of significance commonly used in statistics. The standard significance level is p < .05. In other words, if you come up with a p value of less than .05, then your results are very likely significant. .05 is not some magic number, however; it represents the generally agreed upon bar you have to get over. As we can see, TM didn't make it for overall mortality. Other results are .47 for TM vs. usual care with regard to cancer deaths and .10 TM vs. usual care for cardiovascular disease. So, the reductions they found in those areas are probably meaningless. They did find a couple of significant results: .03 for TM vs. other active therapy for all causes and .05 for TM vs. combined controls for cardiovascular disease. Other active therapy means other relaxation/meditation techniques and usual care means minimal traditional care. Combined controls is both of those together. Interestingly, the study found that your risk is increased by doing the other active therapies vs. usual care in all cause comparisons. But, those results aren't significant either.

So, moral of the story: still no evidence chanting the names of Hindu gods while meditating has any interesting effect beyond stress relief.

Categories: Skepticism
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