Many elderly people spend their last years alone. But being lonely is much more than the sadness of a silent house and lack of companionship. It can take a physical toll as well, including contributing to increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and even premature death.
Researchers at UCLA report, in a study published in the online edition of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, that a simple meditation program reduced loneliness in older adults. Steve Cole, Ph.D., professor of medicine and psychiatry and a member of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, 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.
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, which can promote a variety of diseases.
"Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression," Dr. Cole says. "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. The 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," says Michael Irwin, M.D., director of the Cousins Center. "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. 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."