by David Perlmutter, M.D., Board-Certified Neurologist, #1 New York Times Best-Selling Author, Fellow of the American College of Nutrition
Despite the fact that “social media” has crept into every corner of our lives, we are lonelier and feeling more isolated than ever—especially during this challenging time. 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 what is called all-cause mortality, meaning death from any cause. And it is a big problem. In a recent study conducted by Cigna, 46% of US 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 like having a conversation with a friend or spending time with family members. So, 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, it doesn’t mean that some interventional approach might not be helpful. With that in mind, researchers, publishing in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunology, described their idea in terms of an intervention that might actually help with loneliness.
Their investigation begins with not only a statement as to 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 these associations because dealing with inflammation through lifestyle interventions related to things like diet, sleep, and exercise not only help to prevent these conditions, and others, but in addition, may prove helpful in their actual treatment.
Building on the extensive research over the past several years showing how meditation is associated with reduced markers of inflammation, these investigators set about trying to show whether a mindfulness-based stress reduction training program could not only reduce inflammation but might actually impact loneliness in a positive way.
Their study involved 40 older adults (age 55-85 years). Half of the group engaged in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program over an eight-week period time while the other half did not. All of the participants had blood tests at the beginning and the end of the study looking at markers of expression of inflammatory genes as well as some direct blood markers of inflammation. In addition, each of the participants was rated on a “loneliness scale.” Specifically, this is a composite score utilizing a validated test called the UCLA-R Loneliness Scale that was developed in 1980. These evaluations took place at the beginning of the study and at its conclusion. Higher scores indicate 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 posttreatment.” Interestingly, those who did not participate in the mindfulness program actually demonstrated a slight increase in their loneliness scores when comparing their baseline numbers to their scores after study.
In addition, and certainly very important from a mechanistic perspective, relative to the control subjects, those who engaged in the meditation program showed reduced activity of one of the key genes that’s involved in amping of inflammation, NF-kB. Actual markers of inflammation like CRP and IL-6 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 resulting in less inflammation while at the same time correlated with decreased loneliness.
To be sure, there are all kinds of meditation and mindfulness practices that are available to us. Some we can learn about from first hand experiences with instructors while others are available as apps or other online interaction. And certainly, there are plenty of books that can easily provide straightforward instruction as well. The point is, what’s most important about a meditation or prayer practice is that it works for you as an individual.
To be sure, this is only one in a series of many high-quality research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of meditation practices in lowering inflammation. And this is a goal that has far-reaching benefits when seen through the lens of all of the chronic diseases for which inflammation is playing an important role.
In addition, new research now demonstrates that meditation techniques help calm our relationship with the impulsive part of the brain called the amygdala while at the same time strengthening our connection to the thoughtful prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that’s involved in planning for the future, good decision-making, and empathy for one another, and even the planet at large. Empathy for others fosters building relationships, and that, in and of itself, might well be the most potent antidote for loneliness that there is.
“A season of loneliness and isolation is when the caterpillar gets its wings. Remember that next time you feel alone.” — Mandy Hale