A new study has found that older people who take part in an eight-week program of meditation were able to reduce feelings of loneliness and boost their immune systems, according to researchers at the University of California Los Angeles. The study is published in the current online edition of the journal “Brain, Behavior and Immunity.”
Loneliness isn’t just an emotional issue; it’s a form of stress that has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and early death. And it’s particularly acute among the elderly; a 2005 study found nearly 60 percent of people 70 and older experience some type of loneliness.
In the study, 40 adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were divided into two groups. One practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which trains the mind to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, and “cultivate clarity, insight and understanding,” according to the Center For Mindfulness which developed the program. They attended two-hour weekly meetings and meditated at home daily for 30 minutes, as well as attending one day-long retreat. A control group did not meditate.
Researchers took blood samples at the start and end of the study to measure gene expression and levels of inflammation. Inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to injury, but chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, stroke and cancer.
The participants who meditated reported reduced feelings of loneliness, and their blood tests indicated a significant drop in the expression of inflammation-related genes. These included the marker C-reactive protein (CRP), a strong risk factor for heart disease; and a group of genes regulated by the transcription factor NF-kB -- a molecular signal that activates inflammation.
"Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces pro-inflammatory gene expression," said senior study author Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry, in a press release. "If this is borne out by further research, MBSR could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly."
"While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging," noted Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in a press release. "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."
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.
The Positive Benefits of Meditation