As we age, it is common for older adults to have fewer social interactions and personal relationships. As a result, loneliness becomes an increasingly prevalent problem for older adults. The creation of community centers and day programs for older individuals has attempted to lessen this problem but has had minimal benefit. Loneliness in the elderly is associated with increased markers of inflammation, such as C reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). Inflammation caused by loneliness in the elderly is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and other causes of morbidity and mortality. We have previously discussed the finding that physical activity during midlife can decrease the inflammatory markers associated with cardiovascular disease and the aging process. Previous research has shown mindfulness and meditation can decrease distress in both healthy individuals and among couples in therapy. The impact of mindfulness and meditation on loneliness in the elderly has not previously been studied.
Researchers, lead by Dr. J. David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University, have shown that mindfulness and meditation can reduce loneliness and markers of inflammation in older individuals. The results of their study were published online in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The researchers conducted a randomized control trial with 40 healthy adults aged 55-85 years to determine the effect of a mindfulness meditation regimen on loneliness and markers of inflammation. The study participants were assigned to participate in an 8 week program of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or no treatment. The investigators found that the mindfulness meditation program decreased the level of loneliness and also decreased pro-inflammatory gene expression in immune cells and markers of inflammation, such as CRP.
The authors wrote, “Using a randomized controlled trial design, the present study identifies MBSR as a novel approach for reducing loneliness in older adults. Although previous studies suggest a role for mindfulness based treatments in reducing distress and in fostering improved relational well being, this is the first study to show that mindfulness meditation training reduces feelings of loneliness”.
The authors concluded, “The present work makes two novel contributions to the literature. This study provides a promising initial indication that the 8-week MBSR program may reduce perceptions of loneliness in older adults, which is a well-known risk factor for morbidity and mortality in aging populations. Second, consistent with previous reports, we find that loneliness is associated with up-regulated expression of pro-inflammatory genes in circulating leukocytes, and that MBSR can significantly down-regulate the expression of inflammation-related genes in parallel with reductions in loneliness”.
This study is remarkable because it shows that a behavioral intervention, such as mindfulness meditation, can decrease loneliness as well as markers of inflammation, which are known to increase the risk of dementia, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases of aging. It would be interesting to determine if the observed decreases in inflammation which resulted from meditation can have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease and other inflammation associated disorders of the elderly. Future studies should focus on determining the influence of mindfulness and meditation on cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, as well as heart disease and stroke.
In the following YouTube video, Dr. J. David Creswell discusses the remarkable study finding:
J. David Creswell et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial” Brain Behav Immun. Published online July 20, 2012 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2012.07.006