AGING
August 27, 2012

Relief for Loneliness

A simple program of mindfulness meditation replaced lonely feelings with a greater appreciation of the present.

Aging can bring loneliness. Children grow up and move away; friends and loved ones are lost. It is one reason why depression is common among the elderly. A recent study of loneliness in elderly adults found that an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation reduced loneliness and showed signs of lowering inflammation.

These findings suggest once again that loneliness is mostly in the mind, and a shift in how you see yourself and the world around you can help banish it.

At the end of the study, the mindfulness group reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while the control group, who spend the study period on a waiting list, reported a slight increase.

Mindfulness can have different meanings. Here, its meaning is simple: teaching the mind to focus on the present, not on the might have beens of the past or the uncertainties of the future. This type of thinking can be particularly troubling for the elderly, who often have a long and rich past that's easy to get caught up in.

Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and even premature death. It doesn't feel very good, either.

The small UCLA-based study was of 40 adults aged 55-85. Half were assigned to a mindfulness meditation group. This group attended eight weekly two-hour meetings to learn the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques. They also practiced mindfulness meditation at home for 30 minutes a day and attended one daylong retreat.

At the end of the study, the mindfulness group reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while the control group, who spent the study period on a waiting list, reported a slight increase. In addition, the mindfulness group's blood samples also showed a decrease in C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation, suggesting a general lowering of stress. Other studies have shown that increased loneliness is usually accompanied by an increase in these markers of inflammation.

The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that meditation, yoga and tai chi can all reduce stress and increase well being.

Just last month, another UCLA study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that a type of chanting meditation that can lower stress in people caring for loved ones suffering from dementia may be doing so by lowering inflammation in the caregivers.

So much of loneliness comes from musing over what might have been and what should be. Focusing instead on the present and making the most of it seems to be a helpful remedy.

An article on the study was published online by Brain, Behavior and Immunity and will also appear in a future print issue of the journal.

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