The Transcendental Meditation® (TM) program was founded in 1956 as a “complete science of consciousness,” by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then a leading Hindu scholar. The program claims to be a modern reinterpretation of the Vedic science of consciousness circa 1500-500 BC, and to have five million followers worldwide. The TM movement has gained a substantial foothold in the United States, including the establishment of the Maharashi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa in 1972.

TM followers claim the practice brings about “restful alertness,” a distinct state of consciousness that simultaneously dissolves stress, rejuvenates the nervous system, and heightens brain functioning. Other reported (but largely unsubstantiated) benefits include increased energy and happiness, improved memory, reversal of biological aging, better relationships, and for advanced students, even “yogic flying” and invisibility. The touchstone of TM, as compared to other meditation techniques, is the mandatory repetition of a simple word or sound (called a mantra) throughout the meditation.

Two studies out of the Maharashi University of Management previously found that TM programs significantly lowered blood pressure in older black and white persons after only three months. High blood pressure (hypertension) puts stress on the heart, brain, eyes, kidneys, and blood vessels, and, over time, may lead to stroke , heart attack , heart failure , blindness, kidney failure, and even dementia .

These same researchers were interested in the longer term health effects of TM among this group, so in the current study, they followed up by analyzing death rates up to two decades later. As published in the May 1, 2005 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology , their analysis showed that TM participants were less likely to have died from cardiovascular disease and all causes combined.

About the Study

The study was funded by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The researchers analyzed data from the two aforementioned studies, which are the only two published, randomized controlled trials comparing TM to other behavioral therapies for blood pressure. All participants in the trials had baseline blood pressure readings within the pre-hypertensive or hypertensive range (i.e., anywhere above 120/80 mm Hg, where 120 is systolic and 80 is diastolic blood pressure).

The first study involved 77 elderly white men and women in the Boston area. The participants were randomized to three treatment groups—TM, mindfulness training and mental relaxation, and a usual care group (as the control group). After three months, compliance rates were much higher in the TM group than in the mindfulness training and mental relaxation groups, and systolic blood pressure was also significantly lower in the TM group than in the control group.

The second study involved 125 older black men and women from Oakland, CA. These participants were randomized to a TM group, a progressive muscle relaxation group, or a control health education group. After three months, compliance rates were better in the TM group than the muscle relation group, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly lower in the TM group than the other groups.

For the current study, the researchers followed participants from both trials for an average of 7.6 years and a maximum of 18.8 years to determine vital status and cause of death. Cause of death was obtained from the National Death Index (estimated to be 93% to 98% accurate) and comparisons were made between the combined TM groups, the combined treatment groups, and the combined control groups.

The Findings

Exactly half (101) of the participants died during follow up. After adjusting for the location of study subjects, the researcher found that:

  • TM participants had a 23% decrease in all-cause mortality
  • TM participants had a 30% decrease in cardiovascular mortality
  • There was a trend toward decreased cancer mortality in TM participants
The above outlines major results for the pooled trials, whereas results varied widely between the Boston and Oakland trials, and between comparison of TM to other treatment or usual care. For example, in Boston, TM appeared to increase risk of all-cause mortality by 13% in comparison to usual care, but since it decreased all-cause mortality in comparison to usual care by 40% in Oakland, the combined effect was an 11% reduction. Meanwhile, when TM was compared to other active therapy, both trials found TM to decrease mortality.

This study was limited by the fact that the researchers did not know whether participants continued to practice TM or any other stress management programs during the average eight years of follow up. Likewise, they did not know if TM participants maintained the lower blood pressures they had achieved by the end of the three-month TM interventions.

Moreover, the validity of this study is called into serious question by the fact that the analysis did not adjust results to account for the myriad of important risk factors for cardiovascular disease and death that could have influenced mortality among participants. Most likely no such data was available retrospectively, but it is still a major limitation, and because of it, these conclusions are questionable.

How Does This Affect You?

According to this study, having practiced transcendental meditation in the past couple of decades appears to prolong the lives of older adults. Whether this is due to lowering blood pressure, changing mental outlook, or any other number of factors was not considered in much detail by the researchers.

This finding is interesting, and would be more encouraging if the analysis had been more rigorous. As the researchers point out, there is a high rate of adverse effects from blood pressure-lowering medications, so a non-drug treatment alternative would be ideal. However, studies have yet to directly compare the effects of TM and anti-hypertension medications. So until then, the practical value of TM treatment for health outcomes remains a mystery—especially given the limitations of existing studies like this one.

May is High Blood Pressure Awareness Month. The most important thing to do is have your blood pressure checked on a regular basis. An estimated one in three Americans has hypertension, and about a third of them don’t know it. Hypertension has no symptoms in most cases, so the only way to reliably detect it before is does harm is to be screened. If you do have hypertension or are at risk for developing it, you may ask your doctor about the appropriateness of a stress management program, which may or may not include TM.