A sad fact of aging for many is a lack of companionship as loved ones pass on and children scatter.
Experts say the resultant loneliness is linked to emotional stress and declines in physical health. Indeed, feeling lonely has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and even premature death.
As such, interventions to relieve loneliness are in demand, yet prior strategies to relieve loneliness have had limited success.
Now, new research from UCLA scientists reveals that a simple eight-week meditation program may be all this is needed to reduce loneliness in older adults. Moreover, researchers discovered that mindfulness meditation also reduces the expression of inflammatory genes.
This is an important finding as loneliness is known to activate inflammatory genes which, in turn, are known to promote a variety of diseases.
The study is reported in the online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Senior study author Steve Cole, Ph.D., and colleagues report that the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which teaches the mind to simply be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future, successfully reduced the feelings of loneliness.
Remarkably, the researchers said, MBSR also altered the genes and protein markers of inflammation, including the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) and a group of genes regulated by the transcription factor NF-kB.
CRP is a potent risk factor for heart disease, and NF-kB is a molecular signal that activates inflammation.
Inflammation is a natural component of the immune system and is integral to tissue repair and restoration. But chronic inflammation is now known to be a significant contributor to many diseases and psychological disorders.
“Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression,” Cole said.
“If this is borne out by further research, MBSR could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly.”
In the study, 40 adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a control group that did not meditate.
All the participants were assessed at the beginning and the end of the study using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples were also collected at the beginning and end to measure gene expression and levels of inflammation.
Participants in the meditation group attended weekly two-hour meetings in which they learned the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques.
They also practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a single daylong retreat.
These MBSR participants self-reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while their blood tests showed a significant decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes.
“While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging,” said Dr. Michael Irwin. “It adds to a growing body of research that is showing the positive benefits of a variety of meditative techniques, including tai chi and yoga.”
The benefits of meditation have received considerable recent study as Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, published a study showing that a form of yogic meditation involving chanting also reduced inflammatory gene expression, as well as stress levels, among individuals who care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
“These studies begin to move us beyond simply connecting the mind and genome, and identify simple practices that an individual can harness to improve human health,” Irwin said.