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Mindfulness Meditation Helps Older Adults Battle Loneliness

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Mindfulness Meditation Helps Older Adults Battle Loneliness

A new study suggests that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ feelings of loneliness as well as inflammatory disease risk.

For most of us who lead busy lives, feeling lonely is seldom a concern. But for older adults who live alone, the seclusion and isolation can lead to health problems—and even death. Loneliness has been associated with conditions such as depression, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Outreach strategies don’t always work

Strategies for combatting loneliness in elders have often failed to get to the heart of the problem. Participating in social networking programs online and in community centres, elder colleges, volunteer visiting programs, or other outreach opportunities can offer some help in alleviating loneliness. But for many lonely older adults, these options don’t go far enough in alleviating their feelings of isolation.

Many governments and social services agencies are looking for ways to help intercede. Now researchers, led by J. David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, have offered another possible strategy: mindfulness meditation.

Research into mindfulness meditation

Their research, which was just published in the journal, Brain, Behavior and Immunity, involved a group of 40 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 85. They were assessed at the beginning and end of the study using an established loneliness scale and blood samples were collected.

Each of the participants was randomly assigned to either receive an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) or no treatment.

What did mindfulness meditation involve?

The MBSR program involved weekly two-hour meetings where participants learned body awareness techniques (noticing sensations and working on breathing) as well as how to mindfully attend to their emotions and daily life practices.

They were also asked to perform meditation exercises for 30 minutes a day at home and attended a daylong retreat.

Mindfulness meditation led to less loneliness

After the eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, the participants reported feeling less lonely. Their blood samples, which showed elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression related to expressions of loneliness before the MBSR program, showed a reduction afterward. There was also a reduction in C-reactive protein (CRP).

Reduced inflammation = reduced risk of illness

Both of these factors are related to inflammation in the body which can be signs of, or risk factors for disease, including coronary artery disease. According to the researchers, “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 health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases,” said study collaborator Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Three breaths to mindfulness

  • Sit down. Bring your attention to your body.
  • Gently close your eyes.
  • Inhale to the count of three as you visualize yourself as a large urn filling from the bottom up.
  • Exhale to the count of six as you visualize the urn emptying from the top down.
  • Do steps 3 and 4 twice more.
  • Repeat in one hour.
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