According to a current news release from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), a recent study shows that a simple meditation program of as little as eight weeks can combat loneliness in older adults and seniors. It also found that meditation can help strengthen the immune system.

Many seniors often spend their golden years alone, dealing with the loss of a spouse or friends. Children and families may move away or only visit sporadically. All this leads to periods of isolation, loneliness and depression often resulting in detrimental physical effects like heart disease. Even Alzheimer’s and early death are possible risks. It has also been shown that loneliness can lead to an increase in activity of genes that cause inflammatory related diseases.

The study’s findings were reported in the online edition of the journal titled Brain, Behavior and Immunity. Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry, along with his colleagues found that an eight week program of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation effectively reduced feelings of loneliness.

It also found that meditation can help strengthen the immune system.

MSBR meditation essentially trains the mind to focus on the present moment without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Originally based on Buddhist meditation teachings, it was pioneered by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970’s as a non-spiritual method for stress reduction.

MBSR meditation showed promising results in dealing with chronic inflammation that can lead to a variety of ailments. Most notably it changed the genes and protein markers responsible for inflammation and factors related to heart disease. Although inflammation itself is an immune response, unchecked it can cause damage to the body.

As stated by Dr. Cole, "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."

The study involved 40 adults ranging in age from 55 to 85 who were divided into two groups. One group practiced the mindfulness based meditation for two months. The other group served as a control group and did no meditation. All 40 were given assessments at the beginning and end of the study which included “loneliness scale” evaluations and blood samples to measure gene markers and inflammation levels.

The MBSR meditation group learned mindfulness techniques consisting of focus, awareness and breathing by attending weekly meetings for two hours. They also did a daily 30 minute meditation practice at home. Finally they attended a one day meditation retreat. Participant surveys reported that feelings of loneliness decreased and blood samples showed a decrease in the genes related to inflammation.

Dr. Michael Irwin, a psychiatry professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology commented on the study, “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."

In a similar study published last month, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry found that a type of yoga meditation using chanting could also reduce gene activity contributing to inflammation. Her particular study involved a group of people who provide care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The chanting also effectively reduced stress levels for the caregivers.

"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," Irwin said.

Sources:
Wheeler, Mark. (2012, August 14). Meditation Reduces Loneliness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (n.d.). In Wikipedia.