FRIDAY, Aug. 24, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A simple form of meditation can help stave off feelings of loneliness and may cut the body's inflammatory response -- which can trigger serious illness -- to distressing emotions, a small new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that older adults who participated in an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction -- which attunes the mind to the present and avoids dwelling on the past or projecting into the future -- reported a reduced sense of loneliness on an established ratings scale. Blood tests also indicated a significant decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes.
"I think meditation training can help [people] develop a new relationship to feelings of stress," said study co-author J. David Creswell, director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon. "It puts a brake on this process ... and turns down the chronically stressed state people may be in, thereby turning down the pro-inflammatory cascade. I think it may be targeting the stress component of loneliness such that it doesn't blow itself out of proportion."
The study appeared online recently in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Previous research has linked feeling lonely to a heightened risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's, depression and premature death, and higher levels of inflammation in the body may play a role. The study authors said the new research was the first to show that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also cut pro-inflammatory gene expression.
Forty adults (mostly women) between the ages of 55 and 85 were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a control group that didn't meditate. At the beginning and end of the two-month study, all participants were assessed for their feelings of loneliness and blood levels of gene expression for inflammation markers.
The meditation group participated in weekly two-hour group sessions, a daylong retreat later in the study and 30 minutes of daily home mindfulness practice. Group sessions consisted of an instructor leading participants in guided mindfulness meditation exercises, yoga and stretching, and discussions designed to foster awareness of participants' moment-to-moment experiences.
The research provided additional clues as to how this form of meditation may affect the health of lonely older adults, the study authors said, although it did not assess whether the reduction in pro-inflammatory gene expression translated into meaningful differences on disease outcomes.
"It didn't measure inflammation directly and didn't really tell you whether their bodies are producing any more or less inflammation," said Dr. Jeremy Koppel, a geriatric psychiatrist and research scientist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. But, "the study is suggestive of a very interesting and novel approach to the problem of loneliness ... and broadens the potential benefit to other diseases of late life."
Visit the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for an introduction to meditation.