How Loneliness & Inflammation May Be Linked (And What You Can Do To Help)
Despite the fact that "social" media has crept into every corner of our lives, we are lonelier and feeling more isolated than ever. And this is not without consequence. Feeling lonely has been shown to be a powerful indicator for increased risk for things like Alzheimer's disease, obesity, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, depression, stroke, high blood pressure, and all-cause mortality (which is death from any cause).
In a recent study, 46% of U.S. adults reported sometimes or always feeling lonely, and only around half of Americans reported that they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis. This includes things like having a conversation with a friend or spending time with family members. In the world of preventive medicine, it seems clear that, as it relates to doing something about loneliness, the juice is worth the squeeze.
We put our faith in the pharmaceutical industry to develop cures for our various ills, but it seems pretty unlikely that we should expect some kind of magic bullet to help people regain a sense of connection to others and the world around them.
But just because there is no prescription pad quick fix doesn't mean that some interventional approaches may not be helpful. With that in mind, researchers publishing in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunology described their idea for an intervention that might actually help with loneliness.
The loneliness-inflammation connection.
Their report begins with not only a statement about the relationship between loneliness and risk for various diseases and death, but more importantly, a description showing how loneliness is characterized by increased inflammation. Yes, this is the same inflammation that's associated with all the chronic degenerative conditions including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, coronary artery disease, and even depression.
Inflammation is getting so much attention these days because of its connection to these diseases. Dealing with inflammation through lifestyle interventions related to things like diet, sleep, and exercise not only helps to prevent these conditions and others, but it also can help with treatment.
Tracing how mindfulness may be able to help.
Building on the extensive research over the past several years showing how meditation is associated with reducing inflammation, these investigators set about trying to show whether a mindfulness-based stress reduction training program could not only reduce inflammation but also decrease feelings of loneliness.
Their study involved a group of 40 adults, ranging in age from 55 to 85 years. Half of the group engaged in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program over an eight-week period, while the other half did not. All of the participants had blood tests at the beginning and the end of the study, which looked at markers of inflammation in the blood.
Each of the participants was also rated on a "loneliness scale" at the start and end of the study. Specifically, this is a composite score utilizing a validated test called the UCLA-R Loneliness Scale, which was developed in 1980, and in which a higher score indicates greater loneliness.
The results of the trial were certainly compelling. First, as it relates to the assessment of loneliness, those who participated in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program, a form of meditation, "…had significant decreases in loneliness from baseline to post-treatment." Interestingly, those who did not participate in the mindfulness program actually demonstrated a slight increase in their loneliness scores when compared to their baseline numbers.
In addition, and certainly very important from a mechanistic perspective, those who engaged in the meditation program showed reduced activity of one of the key genes that's involved in amping up inflammation. Actual markers of inflammation were also reduced in those who meditated versus the controls.
While this all sounds technical, the take-home message here is that the results indicate that meditation actually, and fairly dramatically, changed the expression of DNA. This resulted in less inflammation while at the same time correlating with decreased loneliness.
How can I use mindfulness to decrease loneliness?
There are all kinds of meditation and mindfulness practices that are available to us. Some we can learn about from firsthand experiences with instructors, while others are available as apps or online courses. And certainly, there are plenty of books that can easily provide straightforward instruction as well. What's most important about a meditation or prayer practice is that it works for you as an individual.
It's important to note that this is only one in a series of many high-quality research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of meditation practices in lowering inflammation. This is a goal that has far-reaching benefits, as inflammation plays an important role in so many chronic diseases.
In addition, new research now demonstrates that meditation techniques help calm our relationship with the impulsive part of the brain while at the same time strengthening our connection to the area of the brain that's involved in planning for the future, good decision-making, and empathy. Empathy for others fosters building relationships, and that, in and of itself, might well be the most potent antidote for loneliness that there is.
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