Meditation Can Help Loneliness & Inflammation in Seniors

Feeling alone has been associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and premature death in seniors. However, researchers at UCLA have found mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can decrease the feelings of loneliness in seniors between the ages of 55 and 85, using an 8-week program, according to a study published online in the journal “Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry and a member of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and his team also analyzed gene expression, understanding how being lonely is linked with a rise in the activity of inflammation-related genes that can stimulate a range of different diseases. In their analysis, they discovered the same type of meditation considerably decreased expression of inflammatory genes.

Additionally, the team also reported that MBSR changed the genes and protein markers of inflammation, including the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) and a group of genes controlled by the transcription factor NF-kB. CRP is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and NF-kB is a molecular signal that triggers inflammation.

“Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression. If this is borne out by further research, MBSR could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly,” Cole said in the report.

The researchers examined 40 adults between the ages of 55 and 85 who were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a control group that did not meditate. All were evaluated at the start and the end of the study using an established loneliness scale, and gave blood samples so researchers could measure gene expression and levels of inflammation.

Participants assigned to the meditation group attended weekly 2-hour meetings in which they the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques, and practiced mindfulness meditation for a half-hour every day at home. They also went to a single, daylong retreat. These participants reported a lower feeling of lonesomeness, and their blood tests showed a substantial reduction in the expression of inflammation-related genes, according to the report.

“While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging. 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,” said Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of the Cousins Center.