Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and in many parts of the globe. In a landmark move that may positively impact US citizens with heart disease, Medicare approved the Ornish Program for Heart Disease as a form of intensive cardiac rehab in 2010. The Ornish program teaches participants the importance of a meatless, plant-based diet, regular exercise, yoga, meditation, and social support.
Created by Dean Ornish, the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease is based on decades of accumulated scientific evidence that show the components taught in the program synergystically reverse heart disease. Ornish comments that despite heart disease’s status as a number one killer, “it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t need to wait for a new breakthrough … we simply need to put into practice what we already know.”
The program’s primary focus is stress management through yoga, meditation, and exercise, in addition to nutrition sessions which emphasize the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Support groups to break down emotional barriers that contribute to isolation and loneliness which in turn drive stress and bad habits are also offered, in response to study after study that links stronger social ties to longer, healthier lives.
Medicare, the government’s health insurance company for citizens above 60 years of age, now covers the Ornish program alongside traditional cardiac rehab. Traditional cardiac rehab was developed in the 1950s and focuses almost entirely on exercise to re-establish blood-flow and cardiac health.
Medicare coverage and integration of this paradigm into western healthcare did not come without a lifetime’s work. Ornish devoted the past four decades to conducting high quality clinical research which tested the impact of dietary changes and stress management on health. In addition, he spent 16 years working with Medicare and Medicaid Services directly to integrate his research findings into the leading health insurance provider, knowing that with Medicare coverage other insurance companies would likely to follow suit.
Ornish comments, “I was once naïve in thinking that solid science alone would be enough to change health care policy. Reimbursement as well as science are primary determinants of medical practice. If it’s not reimbursable, it’s not sustainable.” This is sound advice for the field of yoga research, which is currently in its infancy and hopes to one day achieve insurance coverage for yoga classes and yoga therapy. While yoga is a part of the Ornish program, it is only covered by insurance as part of the 12-week Ornish program for heart disease.
While Ornish has been a trailblazer in achieving this much, much more work remains to be accomplished. In particular, the broader effects of yoga bear validation and replication. Yoga has shown preliminary promise for a much broader range of health concerns than heart disease alone, and integration of rigorous clinical research with public policy efforts may one day render yoga classes insurance reimbursable as an adjunctive/standalone complementary or alternative treatment.
Have you found yoga to be helpful for you or someone you know with heart disease?
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