Acupuncture may help you live longer!

Really! Acupuncture may help you live longer. A pilot study presented at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting this month showed that acupuncture might help reduce the risk of “sudden death” for patients with heart disease. This is a potentially big deal. Sudden cardiac death, or cardiac arrest, kills around 150,000 people a year in the USA. Medicine is still learning about this issue and we know that traditional cardiac risk factors (smoking, family history etc) don’t fully explain the risk.
So what did the study show? Bear with me, since it’s a little bit complicated. Acupuncture for 12 weeks increased the variability of heart beats. Some background physiology is necessary here. Put simply, in all of us there are subtle variations in the timing of each heart beat. This in turn reflects the neurological control of the heart by the “autonomic nervous system”, the background wiring of the body that helps control unconscious functions, like heart rate, throughout the body. We know that healthy people have higher rates of heart rate variability. In fact, athletes have the highest variability of all. Importantly, there is mounting evidence that people with heart disease who are at the highest risk of sudden death, have LOW heart rate variability. You can read the technical details here, in Circulation (a major cardiology journal) for those with a scientific frame of mind.

In the new study, “true” acupuncture (as opposed to “sham” acupuncture, which is needles in fake points to help exclude a placebo effect), significantly improved heart rate variability. The mechanism seems to reside in modifying the “autonomic nervous system”. It remains to be shown whether acupuncture in patients with heart disease actually live longer, but that is a logical implication that might be proven by future studies. Exciting stuff.

When I was living in Philadelphia, I worked with a cardiology group that was studying the use of complementary medicine to improve the health of its patients. I have successfully helped treat hypertension, and in fact there are studies showing improvement in hypertension in rats as a result of acupuncture (really! there is quite a literature on this). No placebo effect there!

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