Meditation Reduces Loneliness, Proinflammatory Gene Expression

Findings May Have Implications for Reducing the Risk for Dementia, Premature Death

Caroline Cassels

August 22, 2012

August 22, 2012 — A simple 8-week meditation program can reduce loneliness in older adults and reduce proinflammatory gene expression, findings that may provide a novel approach for mitigating the risk for Alzheimer's disease (AD) depression and premature death in this at-risk population, new research shows.

Results from a small, randomized controlled trial conducted by investigators at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), showed that a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program significantly reduced loneliness and expression of proinflammatory genes in older adults compared with participants in a wait-list control group.

"Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces proinflammatory gene expression," senior author Steven W. Cole, PhD, said in a statement. "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 was published online July 20 in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Chronic Disease

According to the investigators, feeling lonely is a significant risk factor for morbidity and mortality in older adults. They note that loneliness in this population is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, AD, and all-cause mortality.

Previous treatments designed to reduce loneliness — which the authors define as "a state of social distress that arises when there is a discrepancy between one's desired and actual social relationships" — have had limited success.

MBSR programs, which teach individuals to be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future, have been shown to improve social relationship functioning in couples, but no studies have tested whether MBSR can reduce loneliness.

To test whether an 8-week MBSR program reduced loneliness, the researchers conducted a small, randomized trial in 40 healthy adults aged 55 to 85 years who were assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a control group that did not meditate. There were no significant differences between the 2 groups at baseline.

The study's primary outcome measure was a reduction in loneliness as measured by the 20-item composite UCLA-R Loneliness Scale at the beginning and end of the study period.

However, the researchers hypothesized that if MBSR could reduce loneliness, it may also have a favorable effect on physical health risks common among lonely older adults by reducing the chronic inflammation known to play a significant role in the pathology of many diseases and psychological disorders.

As a result, the investigators also tested whether MBSR reduced loneliness-related proinflammatory gene expression and circulating protein biomarkers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). To test this, blood samples were collected at the beginning and end of the study.

Simple, Effective

The meditation group attended weekly 2-hour meetings in which the participants learned the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques. They also practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a single day-long retreat.

At study conclusion, results revealed that MBSR participants reported a reduced sense of loneliness; in comparison, their counterparts in the wait-list group reported small increases in loneliness (P = .008).

Furthermore, at baseline, the investigators found an association between reported loneliness and upregulated NF-κB-related gene expression in circulating leukocytes. However, at the end of the study, MBSR downregulated this NF-κB-related gene expression profile posttreatment.

However, the investigators report that there was not strong evidence that MBSR reduces inflammatory markers CRP and IL-6.

"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," study investigator Michael R. Irwin, MD, professor of psychiatry, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, said in a statement.

He added that the growing research efforts in this area "move us beyond simply connecting the mind and genome and identify simple practices that an individual can harness to improve human health."

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Brain Behav Immun. Published online July 20, 2012. Abstract


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