Surprisingly A Solitary Activity Can Help Reduce Loneliness
Being lonely can lead to a variety of health problems, including a risk of heart disease, depression, and dementia. Getting out and active with friends or in community endeavors is often recommended to ease loneliness, but there is one solitary activity that may help too – meditation.
Loneliness is detrimental to health because it is associated with an increase in the activity of inflammation-related genes that promote disease. Meditation, a mind-body technique practiced for thousands of years, may interrupt the inflammation process and help improve quality of life.
Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA, and colleagues studied 40 adults between the ages of 55 and 85, who participated in either a mindfulness meditation group (MBSR) – meditating for 30 minutes each day - or a control group that did not meditate. Both programs lasted a total of eight weeks. All participants were assessed before the study and after using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples were also collected.
MBSR stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It teaches the meditator to be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future.
At the end of the study, the researchers found that the participants in the meditation group had lower markers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein (CRP), a potent risk factor for heart disease. Interestingly, the meditation activity also significantly altered gene expression. Genes responsible for inflammation, including those regulated by transcription factor NF-kB, had reduced activity.
"Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression," Cole said. "If this is borne out by further research, MBSR could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly."
In addition to reducing stress and inflammation, meditation may also help positively alter brain structure. Other recent studies have found that meditation can help improve memory, attention span, decision-making, and learning. Feeling inadequate in these areas can sometimes cause a person to self-isolate – exacerbating loneliness.
"While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging," said Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. "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 108 Meditation Techniques to try on your own, visit The Meditation Society of America’s “Meditation Station.”
J. David Creswell, Michael R. Irwin, Lisa J. Burklund, Matthew D. Lieberman, Jesusa M.G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, Elizabeth Crabb Breen, Steven W. Cole. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.07.006
Eileen Luders, Arthur W. Toga, Natasha Lepore and Christian Gaser. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage. 2009 April 15; 45(3): 672–678.