A concentrated focus on breathing, emotions, and staying present may help older adults to improve the quality of their sleep. When practiced for a sustained period of time, a new study finds, mindfulness meditation shows similar benefits afforded by prescription drugs.

Sleep disturbances affect nearly all age groups, albeit in different ways. Where younger adults and teenagers suffer from a sheer lack of sleep, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to officially label insufficient sleep a public health epidemic, older adults more often suffer poor sleep quality. They also fall asleep unintentionally at the greatest rates during the day, upsetting their sleep schedule for the night ahead.

In search of ways to reduce the dependence on sleep-enhancing drugs, researchers recruited 49 people as part of a small clinical trial. Roughly half the participants were taught how to practice standardized mindfulness awareness practices (MAP). The remaining subjects received sleep hygiene education (SHE), which extolled the benefits of regular exercise, avoiding caffeine and frequent napping, and associating their bed with sleep, rather than as a one-stop shop for reading, eating, and watching TV. Sleep quality was measured according to a standardized score called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). Lower scores indicated people were sleeping better.

After the study period, researchers discovered the mindfulness group’s score had fallen from a 10.2 on the PSQI to a 7.4 Meanwhile, the control group, who began with the same baseline, only fell to 9.1. “The MAPs group also showed improvement relative to the SHE group on secondary measures of insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity,” the researchers wrote.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation may have an even deeper clinical significance, in particular among helping cancer survivors live longer. Last year, a study published in the journal Cancer found mindfulness-based cancer recovery rivaled supportive-expressive therapy, a form of dialogue meant to create a safe space for people to air their thoughts and fears, in preserving individuals’ telomeres — the caps chromosomes rely on to preserve DNA health.

Mindfulness meditation’s benefits aren’t all-encompassing, however. Repeated studies have found the practice still lags behind other non-prescription-based forms of treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. In the recent study too, the findings showed no difference in stress or anxiety levels in either group at the end of the trial, although both groups did see reductions overall.

More important to people who study sleep disturbances are the everyday implications. In-depth forms of therapy are generally reserved for current or recovering drug addicts. Older adults who suffer mild to moderate deficits in sleep quality may be able to get by with something decidedly simpler, and the good news, says Dr. Adam P. Spira, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that the findings leave room for growth.

“As the authors explain,” Spira wrote in a related editorial, “effective nonpharmacological interventions that are both ‘scalable’ and ‘community accessible’ are needed to improve disturbed sleep and prevent clinical levels of insomnia.” Fortunately, alternative forms of medicine such as mindfulness meditation are beginning to take hold in medicine’s mainstream, he adds. More options will only benefit patients looking for specialized forms of care that don’t involve popping a daily pill.

Source: Black D, O’Reilly G, Olmstead R, Breen E, Irwin M. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015.