Many elderly people spend the final years of their lives on their own. Partners die and children move on and start their own lives, leaving seniors lonely. However, being lonely is significantly more than just a quiet house and a lack of companionship. As time passes, living on one’s own doesn’t just take a toll on the mind, but can also have a severe physical effect too.

Feeling lonely has been associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, as well as premature death. Creating efficient treatment options to relieve solitude in seniors is vital, however, earlier treatment efforts not been very effective.

Now, researchers at UCLA reveal that a straightforward meditation program, lasting only 8 weeks, decreased loneliness in seniors. Additionally, understanding that being lonely is linked to a rise in the activity of inflammation-related genes that can stimulate a range of different diseases, the team analyzed gene expression and discovered that this same type of meditation considerably decreased expression of inflammatory genes.

In the 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 team reveal that the eight-week 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, effectively decreased the feelings of loneliness.

Furthermore, the team said, MBSR also 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.

Cole explained:

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

Participants assigned to the meditation group attended weekly 2-hour meetings in which the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques. In addition, they practiced mindfulness meditation for a half-hour every day at home and went to a single day-long retreat.

According to the researchers, these participants self-reported a lower feeling of loneliness, whilst their blood tests showed a substantial reduction in the expression of inflammation-related genes.

Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of the Cousins Center, said: “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.”

For example, just recently, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and a Cousins Center member, published a study demonstrating that a type of yogic meditation involving chanting additionally reduced inflammatory gene expression, as well as levels of stress, amongst people who look after patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Irwin, explained: “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.”

Written by Grace Rattue