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Meditation as a defence against loneliness

As we age, we may be prone to feelings of loneliness, especially if our friends and families aren’t close by, or if inclement weather or mobility challenges keep us indoors. These feelings can further be exacerbated by the loss of a spouse or a close friend.

Naturally, the best cure for loneliness is to stay connected to the people we know and love, as well as the world in general. It’s getting together for a quick coffee or a weekly dinner, participating in the activities we enjoy, or volunteering for a cause we feel passionate about. The result is a happier and healthier aging process on all fronts.

But there’s another, perhaps more surprising way to fight loneliness: mindful meditation. A research study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation program reduced loneliness in seniors.

Happy senior lady meditating near windowIn the UCLA study, a group of 40 people, ages 55 through 85, were randomly divided into two groups. One group attended weekly two-hour meditation sessions, plus practised 30 minutes a day on their own and attended a one-day retreat. The other group did not meditate. Participants’ degree of loneliness was rated according to a scale, and blood samples were taken to measure inflammation response both at the beginning and end of the study.

The MBSR participants self-reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while their blood tests showed a significant decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes. (A chronic inflammatory response in our bodies is now thought to be associated with a number of health conditions and diseases.)

Jon Kabatt-Zin, the father of mindfulness meditation, says, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” During meditation, instead of pushing away thoughts or feelings (including those of anxiety, stress or loneliness), participants acknowledge them, leading to a calmer, more relaxed state.

Although the study was small, scientists were encouraged by the results, the report adding to the growing body of evidence that shows the benefits of meditation, yoga and tai-chi disciplines for a healthy mind and body. Better digestion (from the deep breathing), improved memory and feeling happier are just a few of the well-researched reasons to take up meditation. In fact, many seniors find that meditation is particularly well suited to their lifestyle, especially if they have mobility issues.