Nowadays, in Western countries, the needs of people with HIV are different from those at the early days of the epidemic. People diagnosed many years ago face challenges that threat their ability to age successfully: they frequently suffer from physical and emotional fatigue after years of infection, side effects of the treatments and, in many cases, other chronic infections such as hepatitis and/or diseases typical in aging.
In fact, people with HIV may suffer from premature aging because their immune system is permanently activated to combat the effects of the virus, causing widespread inflammation that may have harmful effects on the body. Health problems related to aging, such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers or cognitive impairment, may appear more often and at a younger age than in the general population,. Since the HIV infection has become chronic and people are aging with HIV, a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach including medical, psychological and social aspects is required more than ever.
Moreover, as shown in some studies, high levels of stress and depressive symptoms have a direct impact on the quality of life of people and on their immune status. It seems clear that a good emotional status has a positive effect on the immunological situation, becoming a key aspect to fight against the disease.
In this context, AIDS & Behaviour journal published in its latest issue the results of a study that assessed the positive effects of a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program in the quality of life, emotional status and immune status of people diagnosed with HIV infection before 1996 (that is before the advent of highly effective antiretroviral drugs) and who had been on antiretroviral therapy for at least 5 years. Forty people took part of the study: half of them followed the program and the others, named as the control group, continued with the routine follow-up. The lead researcher is Dr. Carmina R. Fumaz, a psychologist at the Fight AIDS Foundation and the HIV Unit of the Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital.
Mindfulness is the ability to be present in each moment, experiencing everyday life, consciously connected with the present. Many times, our mind tends to operate in a mode that we might call "autopilot", ignoring the experiences. With a discipline or practice similar to meditation we try to switch from the “autopilot” mode to the mindfulness mode. In this second mode of mental functioning, unlike the first, we can learn to embrace emotions, thoughts and feelings that arise from our experience without judgment, being more compassionate with others and especially with ourselves, getting this way a certain inner peace.
The intervention applied in the study was always supervised by a psychologist with experience in the application of mindfulness-based techniques and consisted of 8 weekly-classes of 2.5 hours. In addition, participants were given CDs that included instructions for meditation sessions, yoga and cognitive exercises to practice at home.
The study showed that quality of life, psychological stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety improved significantly in the group following the mindfulness program compared to the control group. During the follow-up, the participants included in the mindfulness program also had a significant increase in their CD4 cells, which are fundamental in the evolution of HIV infection.
Given the limitations of the study, such as the lack of information regarding long-term benefits, the positive results showed in the study suggest that a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program can help to promote a succesful aging in people with HIV infection, as well as in the general population.