Feeling Lonely? Meditation can Help.

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Loss of companionship and its accompanying feeling of loneliness is unfortunately common as we age. Non-invasive ways to relieve this feeling are rare. Recently, a UCLA study showed that a 8-week program of mindfulness meditation can help reduce loneliness in older adults.

The Study
Forty adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program or a control group that did not meditate.
A MBSR program uses mindfulness meditation and yoga to teach participants to react non-judgmentally to stressful events, by focusing on their breathing or body or by walking. Mindfulness meditation itself  leads to a mental state in which one is attentive to the present experience (one’s thoughts and sensations as well as the environment) and does not dwell in the past or project into the future. Participants attended a single daylong retreat, and then weekly two-hour meetings in which they learned the techniques of mindfulness. They also practiced meditating for 30 minutes each day at home.
All participants’ loneliness level was assessed at the beginning and the end of the study using a standard scale. Blood samples were also collected at the beginning and end to measure the genes and protein markers of inflammation.

Results showed that the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction successfully reduced the participants’ feelings of loneliness. Indeed, participants in the meditation group self-reported a reduced sense of loneliness. In addition, their blood tests showed a decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes.

So What?
This study suggests that a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly. Loneliness is related to both emotional stress and declines in physical health. Indeed, it has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and higher death rates. It is thus great news to see a non-invasive tool such as MBSR have such an impact on loneliness.

MBSR also had an impact on the markers of inflammation, including the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a potent risk factor for heart disease. This is interesting because chronic inflammation is  known to be a significant contributor to many diseases and psychological disorders.

Several studies have shown that a MBSR program can successfully reduce stress, which probably explains its effect on both the subjective feeling of loneliness and the objective measure of inflammation (stress and the inflammation response are interconnected).
Recently, researchers have been able to show the direct effect of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program on the brain. One study for instance showed that after meditating for 30 minutes per day for 8 weeks, participants’ gray matter was thicker in several parts of the brain involved in learn­ing, mem­ory, empa­thy and emo­tion regulation, suggesting that meditation may change the efficiency of these brain functions (Hölzel et al., 2011).

References:

  • Creswell, D. et al. (2012). Brain, Behavior and Immunity, August 2012 online edition.
  • Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1), 36-43.

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