Loneliness has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, and even premature death. Moreover, loneliness is associated with increased activity of inflammation genes that can promote a variety of diseases. Previous treatment efforts have yielded little success.
But now researchers at UCLA have found that mindfulness meditation can help reduce the feelings of loneliness, and significantly reduce expression of the inflammatory genes.
The findings, featured in a recent online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, showed that the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) helped decrease emotions related to loneliness. In the program, participants learned how to train their minds to be attentive to the present, and to limit thoughts of the past or the future.
“Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression,” explained senior study author Steve Cole, UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry, and member of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. “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 also believe that MBSR can change the genes and protein markers of inflammation, like the genes regulated by the transcription factor NF-kB, and the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP). In particular, CRP is a dangerous risk factor for heart disease, and NF-kB is a molecular signal that can cause inflammation. We know that inflammation is a natural part of the immune system that helps defend against infections and injuries. But chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of diseases and psychological disorders.
I found this point of particular interest. Fortunately, loneliness is not an issue for me. But my most troublesome health ailment now is the low back pain attributed to osteoarthritis, which is associated with inflammation.
In the project, 40 adults, aged 55 to 85, were randomly placed in a mindfulness mediation group or a control group that did not involve meditation. All the subjects were examined at the beginning and end of the study to create a loneliness scale. Researchers also collected blood samples both times to track gene expression and inflammation levels.
Based on the study, MBSR participants self-reported lowered feelings of loneliness, and their blood tests confirmed a reduction in the expression of genes associated with inflammation.
Tai Chi and Yoga Also Can Help
“While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging,” remarked Dr. Michael Irwin, professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Brain Behavior, and director of the Cousins Center. “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."
Just last month, for example, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and Cousins Center member, published a study showing that a form of yogic meditation involving chanting also reduced inflammatory gene expression -- and stress levels -- among individuals who care for patients with Alzheimer's disease.
"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," Irwin said.