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.
However, a new study led by Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell offers the first evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults. Published in “Brain, Behavior & Immunity,” the researchers also found 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; 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.
“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “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 techniques — 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.
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). These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ inflammatory disease risk.
“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,” said Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine who collaborated on the study.
While the health effects of the observed gene expression changes were not directly measured in the study, Cole noted that “these results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”
Creswell added 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 said. “It’s important to train your mind like you train your biceps in the gym.”
In addition to Creswell and Cole, the research team included UCLA’s Michael R. Irwin, Lisa J. Burklund and Matthew D. Lieberman and the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology’s Jeffrey Ma and Elizabeth Crabb Breen.
I think they have to follow up by checking these people after they have been doing the mindfulness meditation for a year alone at home. When they do the eight week course they are out of the house and in company with other people. The researchers are also giving them considerable attention. I suspect that the social aspects of the course have considerable impact. I really would like to know the genuine effect of the mindfulness work.
Just a couple of things. These trials include control groups. I don’t have access to the journal article, but it’s almost certain that the control group would have met just like the MBSR group, but without the meditation.
The other thing is that merely getting lonely people out of the house and mingling with others has not been shown to be effective as a treatment for loneliness. Loneliness is a state of mind, and people can feel lonely while surrounded by others.
It makes sense to me that meditation would benefit lonely people because it would reduce the amount of loneliness-inducing thinking (“nobody likes me” etc) and will also reduce the level of investment in such thinking when it does occur.
Bodhipaksa – I agree that being in company is not in itself necessarily helpful, but my own experience that being engaged, together with other people, on any kind of meaningful project usually makes a big difference.
I agree absolutely about the reduction of negative rumination.
I’d really like to read the article. Will try to see if it’s available.
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