Scientists have discovered that the rhythmic chanting used when saying the rosary or a yoga mantra has a calming effect on the heart. ?The rosary might be viewed as a health practice as well as a religious practice,? says Dr. Luciano Bernardi, of the University of Pavia in Italy.

Bernardi and his colleagues measured the breathing rates of 23 adults while they either prayed the rosary in the original Latin or recited a yoga mantra. The rosary is the Hail Mary prayer, repeated 50 times. For comparison, the researchers also measured people?s respiration during free talking, and during natural breathing, as well as slow breathing exercises.

When the participants breathed naturally, their respiratory rate was about 14 breaths per minute, which slowed down to almost 8 breaths per minute when they engaged in regular conversation. During recitation of the Ave Maria or the yoga mantra, their respiratory rate went down to about 6 breaths per minute. A slow respiration rate of 6 breaths per minute ?has generally favorable effects on cardiovascular and respiratory function,? say the researchers.

Their breathing rates were reduced irregularly during conversation, but were significantly more regular during recitation of the Ave Maria and the yoga mantra. This was similar to the breathing rates measured during 6 minutes of controlled respiration. This indicates ?that these methods could stabilize the respiratory rate as effectively as precisely timed control,? the researcher say.

Recitation of both the Ave Maria and the yoga mantra also synchronized all the heart rhythms, the investigators found. The fact that similar effects were produced by the practices of two different religions may not be coincidental. Bernardi and colleagues suggest that the two practices had similar origins.

While the rosary is related to Christianity, it was actually introduced by the crusaders ?who learned a similar technique from the Arabs who in turn learned it from the Indian and Tibetan masters of yoga,? says Bernardi. ?So it may be that recitation of mantras, which originally was conceived as a health practice, and the Rosary, which is essentially a religious practice in Europe, could have the same background.?

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It has been discovered that Chinese and Japanese Americans are more likely to die from a heart attack on the fourth of the month, according to David Phillips at the University of California, San Diego and his colleagues. They think the stress caused by this superstition helps trigger the cardiac deaths.

The number four sounds like the word for death in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. It is considered so unlucky that some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms four, the same way some buildings avoid having a thirteenth floor here in the U.S.

Even the number of cardiac deaths among Chinese and Japanese people living in the United States is seven per cent higher on the fourth of each month, compared with the daily average for the rest of the week. This does not seem to be due to changes in the patient’s diet, alcohol intake, exercise or drug treatment. ?Other research suggests that psychosocial factors might prolong life. This suggests that psychosocial factors might hasten death,? says Phillips. The researchers checked computerized death records for more than 200,000 Chinese and Japanese Americans and more than 47 million non-Asian Americans who died between January 1973 and December 1998. The overall increase in cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese people on the fourth was seven per cent. But for deaths from chronic heart disease, the figure rose to 13 per cent. The percentages were highest for those living in California, where there are large numbers of Chinese people.

?We call this mortality peak ?the Baskerville effect,?? the researchers say. In the Sherlock Holmes story, ?The Hound of the Baskervilles,? Charles Baskerville is confronted by a savage dog and has a fatal heart attack resulting from extreme stress . ?This Baskerville effect seems to exist in fact as well as in fiction,? they say. Previous work by Phillips showed that people die less often than expected before important symbolic occasions, and more often afterwards. ?Chinese holidays move around the calendar and one can see that the pre-holiday ?death dip? moves around with the holiday. One can also see that the people who care about the holiday produce the ?death dip? while others do not,? Phillips says.

Psychological stress does not directly cause heart attacks, but long-term release of adrenaline can tighten arteries, which increases blood pressure. Says a spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation, ?This can then set off a heart attack and angina. We recommend relaxation tapes or yoga. Deep breathing exercises will help.?

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