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Fighting loneliness and disease with meditation

By Amanda Enayati, Special to CNN
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Sat August 25, 2012
The practice of meditation in its various manifestations has significant and measurable stress-reduction properties.
The practice of meditation in its various manifestations has significant and measurable stress-reduction properties.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A study shows that meditation reduces loneliness and inflammation in older adults
  • Loneliness is the subjective perception of feeling disconnected, author says
  • Lowering inflammation helps prevent cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

(CNN) -- Anyone who sees meditation as a hippy-dippy endeavor has found his or her view increasingly challenged by science in recent years.

Meditation and other contemplative practices are continuing to claim their place at the table of mainstream medicine.

This is true for a slew of reasons: chief among them, the recognition that hordes of us are stressed out, that stress wreaks havoc upon our bodies and that the practice of meditation has significant and measurable stress-reduction properties.

In a recent study led by J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, mindfulness-based meditation continues to reveal itself as a therapeutic powerhouse, with far-reaching influence on both psychological and physical health.

The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, extends the benefits of mindfulness-based meditation into previously uncharted territories: helping to reduce loneliness and the risk of disease in older adults.

Mindfulness as a concept is an ancient Eastern practice and is key to meditation in that tradition. It means being present and in the moment, and observing in a nonjudgmental way.

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Seniors' loneliness is a major risk factor for illness and death, on par with smoking, Creswell says.

But while there's a good chance that your doctor will advise you to stop smoking, it is quite unlikely that she will ask you whether you feel lonely and tell you to stop feeling that way. (And what if she did?)

"It's a big problem," Creswell observed. "Lots of researchers have tried to find ways, like social networks created through community centers, to reduce loneliness in older adults, but none of the approaches really works well."

Amanda Enayati
Amanda Enayati

Creswell's study proves that meditation may be a formidable strategy for addressing loneliness.

Researchers recruited 40 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 85 who showed an interest in learning mindfulness-based mediation techniques.

Each of the study participants completed a questionnaire assessing his or her loneliness. They also provided blood samples, which revealed that a greater sense of loneliness was associated with up-regulated expression of pro-inflammatory genes (or greater inflammation in the body).

The study participants were assigned randomly to one of two groups. The first group took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program that included two-hour skill training sessions each week, daily 30-minute meditation exercises at home and a day-long retreat. The control group received no treatment.

The researchers found that participating in the meditation program reduced the older adults' perceptions of loneliness compared with those of members of the control group, who experienced small increases in loneliness.

There is evidence to suggest that the effect was, in fact, attributable to the meditation practice and not to the fellowship afforded by being part of a research study group or going on a retreat.

The study cites prior randomized controlled trials that found the perception of loneliness was unaltered after the administration of social support and skills training.

And trials have shown that even when meditation is taught on a one-on-one basis, participants experience reductions in stress symptoms and improvements in physical health markers.

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Loneliness, notes Creswell, is not necessarily about a person's objective number of social contacts but his or her subjective perception of feeling disconnected.

"It's about the distress underlying your social relationships," he said. "Meditation helps people not get caught up in the spiral of distress. It provides a break wherein people recognize that that though they feel disconnected, the loneliness doesn't have to define who they are."

The scientists also made a second -- and arguably more compelling -- discovery. Not only did the mindfulness-based stress reduction program decrease the participants' sense of loneliness, it significantly reduced the pro-inflammatory gene expression and the measure of C-Reactive Protein (CRP) in their blood. Higher CRP levels are a marker for inflammation.

According to Creswell, meditation's ability to lower inflammation levels is particularly important because inflammation plays a significant role in driving the disease process in a whole host of serious illnesses ranging from cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's to arthritis, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. (If you have ever popped a daily low-dose aspirin to reduce chronic inflammation, you can begin to grasp the importance of this latter finding.)

"It is amazing," Creswell said. "For the first time, we are seeing that a behavioral practice -- paying attention to your experience from moment to moment -- has the power to change the gene expression in your immune cells."

Amazing, indeed. Although the study did not assess whether the effects of reducing pro-inflammatory gene expression translate into more positive outcomes for disease, the possibilities are significant and far-reaching.

Creswell is looking to replicate and extend the study's initial findings in a larger sample of 150 participants, using an active control group.

"It's quite expensive and challenging to do this research on a large-scale basis, but there is potential to help not just older adults but all sorts of patients -- people at risk for heart disease, depression and other illnesses," he said.

Does it have to be mindfulness-based meditation? Might other forms of contemplative practice provide similar benefits?

"We don't have the data to indicate whether or not there is something distinct about mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques," Creswell said. "I suspect, though, that having a formal meditation program with a teacher is beneficial because it provides structure and helps you train and build skills, at least in the beginning."

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