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Meditation can enhance wellbeing in older people

Findings from the longest randomised meditation training trial conducted to date prove that meditation programmes can help older adults flourish

The study findings show that meditation impacted the wellbeing dimensions of awareness, connection, and insight in the participants
The study findings show that meditation impacted the wellbeing dimensions of awareness, connection, and insight in the participants (Unsplash/Eniko Kis)

An 18-month meditation programme, part of a new randomised controlled trial led by an international team co-directed by UCL (University College of London), proves that meditation training can increase the well-being of older persons. 

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed open access mega journal PLOS ONE, show that meditation can improve people's awareness, connection to others, and insight. 

Also read: Regular meditation could help make better decisions, study finds

While the meditation training did not confer significant benefits on two commonly used measures of ‘psychological wellbeing’ and ‘quality of life’, the researchers say their findings may reveal limitations in existing methods of tracking wellbeing.

Lead author Marco Schlosser (UCL Psychiatry and University of Geneva) said: "As the global population ages, it is increasingly crucial to understand how we can support older adults in maintaining and deepening their psychological wellbeing. In our study, we tested whether long-term meditation training can enhance important dimensions of wellbeing. Our findings suggest that meditation is a promising non-pharmacological approach to support human flourishing in late life."

The study is the longest randomised meditation training trial conducted to date, and explored the impact of an 18-month meditation programme on the psychological wellbeing of more than 130 healthy French-speaking people aged 65 to 84. The study, led by principal investigator professor Gael Chetelat, took place in Caen, France. It was conducted by the European Union's Horizon 2020-funded Medit-Ageing (Silver Sante Study) research group which involves UCL, Inserm, University of Geneva, Universite de Caen Normandy, Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, University of Liege, Technische Universitat Dresden, and Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

Meditation vs. English Learning
The researchers compared a meditation programme, which included a nine-month mindfulness module followed by a nine-month loving kindness and compassion module, delivered by weekly group sessions (two hours long), daily home practice (at least 20 minutes), and one retreat day, with a group that did English language training (as a comparison group) and a no-intervention control group.

The team found that meditation training significantly impacted a global score that measures the wellbeing dimensions of awareness, connection, and insight. Awareness describes an undistracted and intimate attentiveness to one's thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, which can support a sense of calm and deep satisfaction. Connection captures feelings such as respect, gratitude, and kinship that can support more positive relationships with others. Insight refers to a self-knowledge and understanding of how thoughts and feelings participate in shaping our perception - and how to transform unhelpful patterns of thought relating to ourselves and the world.

Also read: A simple guide to developing conscious coping mechanisms

The benefits of meditation training to an established measure of psychological quality of life were not superior to English language training, while neither intervention significantly impacted another widely used measure of ‘psychological wellbeing’. The researchers suggest this may be because these two established measures do not cover the qualities and depth of human flourishing that can potentially be cultivated by longer-term meditation training, so benefits to awareness, connection and insight are missed.

The programme did not benefit everyone equally, as participants who reported lower levels of psychological wellbeing at the start of the trial showed greater improvements compared to those who already had higher levels of wellbeing.

Co-author Dr Natalie Marchant (UCL Psychiatry) said: "We hope that further research will clarify which people are most likely to benefit from meditation training, as it may confer stronger benefits on some specific groups. Now that we have evidence that meditation training can help older adults, we hope that further refinements in partnership with colleagues from other research disciplines could make meditation programmes even more beneficial."

Senior author Dr Antoine Lutz (Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, Inserm, France) said: "By showing the potential of meditation programmes, our findings pave the way for more targeted and effective programmes that can help older adults flourish, as we seek to go beyond simply preventing disease or ill-health, and instead take a holistic approach to helping people across the full spectrum of human wellbeing."

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