Loneliness among the elderly has been linked with a multitude of health problems -- including heart risks and even a higher risk of premature death. But a small new study is shedding some light on a tool that could hep combat loneliness among this age demographic: Mindfulness meditation.

The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior & Immunity, shows that eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation is linked with decreased loneliness.

The study included 40 participants between ages 55 and 85, some of whom participated in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. People who participated in the program were also asked to do meditation exercises at home for a half-hour every day, and to go to a meditation retreat for one day.

Plus, the researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that mindfulness meditation had positive effects on the study participants' health, too.

"Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases," study researcher Steven Cole, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Aside from alleviating loneliness, mindfulness meditation has also been shown in past research to have positive effects on the brain -- linked with brain changes that may even have effects against mental illness, according to a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.

For more effects of meditation, click through the slideshow:

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  • It Makes Your Brain Plastic

    Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input. For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood. But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson <a href="http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/publications/2008/DavidsonBuddhaIEEE.pdf" target="_hplink">has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity</a> and display an ability -- continuing after the meditation session has attended -- to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they're automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.

  • It Increases Gray Matter

    A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators</a>. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.

  • It Can Be Better Than Sleeping

    In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">did better than the nappers and TV watchers</a> -- by a whole 10 percent.

  • It's Better Than Blood Pressure Medication

    In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2008/08/21/93796200/to-lower-blood-pressure-open-up-and-say-om" target="_hplink">40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels</a> and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.

  • It Can Protect Your Telomeres

    Telomeres -- the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes -- are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you're also likely to live longer. Research done by the University of California, Davis' Shamatha Project <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/24/meditation-ageing-shamatha-project" target="_hplink">has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators</a>. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .

  • It Can Slow The Progression Of HIV

    A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724215644.htm" target="_hplink">who'd meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content</a> compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the "brain" of the body's immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session. However, due to the small sample size -- only 48 volunteers -- it's harder to draw definitive conclusions.

  • Its Pain Relieving Properties Beat MorphIne

    Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-demystifying-meditation-brain-imaging.html" target="_hplink">meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent</a>. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent. Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain. This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.

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