Gyms and spas have been boasting the benefits of meditation and yoga for quite some time, and many people find it to be a great outlet for reducing stress. Two recent studies–one focusing on senior adults and the other focusing on caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients–show that meditation does indeed reduce stress and loneliness.
The first study was conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell and provides the first evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults. Loneliness has been proven to be a major risk factor for health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, and death in our senior population. Attempts at community based programs such as community centers and senior socialization programs have been largely ineffective, so the idea that meditation could be a fix for the problem is encouraging.
“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”
In the study, researchers studied 40 healthy adults ranging in age from 55-85 who had an interest in learning about mindfulness meditation techniques. Each was assessed at the beginning of the study, and again at the end, using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples were also collected. Half of the participants received the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. They spent two hours each week learning body awareness techniques, which they practiced 30 minutes each day. They also attended a day long retreat.
The results were interesting. In addition to reporting decreased loneliness, the group that participated in the MBSR program also had lower levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells than they did at the beginning of the program.
“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,” said study collaborator Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. “These results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”
The second study took place at UCLA and was led by Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a senior author, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and director of the UCLA’s Late-Life Depression, Stress, and Wellness Research Program. The study looked at the stress levels in family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and the benefits of yoga for their day-to-day life.
“We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression,” she said “On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent. Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress.”
The study participants were randomly placed in two groups. One group was taught the 12-minute yoga practice, which included Kirtan Kriya Meditation (KKM). The yoga practice was done each day at the same time for eight weeks. The second group listened to instrumental music on a relaxation CD for 12 minutes each day, also at the same time each day. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the study. The results showed that 68 genes responded differently after the KKM practice, which resulted in a lower immune system inflammation response. When inflammation is continually activated, it contributes to many problems.
“The goal of the study was to determine if meditation might alter the activity of inflammatory and antiviral proteins that shape immune cell gene expression,” said Lavretsky. “Our analysis showed a reduced activity of those proteins linked directly to increased inflammation. This is encouraging news. Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy, or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful too.”
Mindfulness and yogic chanting–our view of health and medicine keeps getting broader and more all-encompassing every day!