Meditating Older Adults Feel Less Lonely

Mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults, and may lower their risk of inflammatory diseases, a new Carnegie Mellon University study suggests.

For older adults, loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, and death. Attempts to diminish loneliness with social networking programs like creating community centers to encourage new relationships have not been effective.

The researchers also find that mindfulness meditation, a practice that dates back 2,500 years to Buddha that focuses on creating an attentive awareness of the reality of the present moment, lowered inflammation levels.

A Promising Intervention

Inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases. These findings provide valuable insights into how mindfulness meditation training can be used as a novel approach for reducing loneliness and the risk of disease in older adults.

Says assistant professor of psychology J. David Creswell:

“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way. We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”

For the study, the research team recruited 40 healthy adults aged 55-85 who indicated an interest in learning mindfulness meditation techniques. Each person was assessed at the beginning and end of the study using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples also were collected.

The participants were randomly assigned to receive either the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or no treatment.

The MBSR program consisted of weekly two-hour meetings in which participants learned body awareness technique, noticing sensations and working on breathing, and worked their way towards understanding how to mindfully attend to their emotions and daily life practices. They also were asked to practice mindfulness meditation exercises for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a daylong retreat.

Reduced Inflammation

The researchers found that eight weeks of the mindfulness meditation training decreased the participants’ loneliness. Using the blood samples collected, they found that the older adult sample had elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells at the beginning of the study, and that the mindfulness meditation training reduced this pro-inflammatory gene expression, as well as a measure of C-Reactive Protein (CRP).

The findings suggest that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ inflammatory disease risk. Says collaborator Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine:

“Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.”

While the health effects of the observed gene expression changes were not directly measured in the study, Cole notes that:

“these results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”

Creswell adds that while this research suggests a promising new approach for treating loneliness and inflammatory disease risk in older adults, more work needs to be done.

“If you’re interested in using mindfulness meditation, find an instructor in your city,” he says. “It’s important to train your mind like you train your biceps in the gym.”

Reference:

J. David Creswell, Michael R. Irwin, Lisa J. Burklund, Matthew D. Lieberman, Jesusa M.G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, Elizabeth Crabb Breen, Steven W. Cole
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity Volume 26, Issue 7, October 2012, Pages 1095–1101

Photo: Steve Johnson Flickr/flickr