A few weeks ago, our seminar/webinar series offered a lively program titled “Aging is Cool: Today’s Active Adult” featuring a variety of ways to enliven our days as we grow older. It was a lively session (you can watch the recorded video here), and one of its main themes was to seek meaning and purpose in the world around us as we move through the years. While that session focused almost exclusively on physical aspects of being an “active adult,” we also recognize that sometimes it’s equally necessary to step back from constant motion and engage in reflection. So, with this week’s post, we’re exploring a different path–one that might sound contradictory to the highly charged topics from the “Aging is Cool” session–in which the focus is on carefully separating from the pace of activity around us in order to clear one’s thought processes and quietly concentrate on your present self.
Through our relationship with Sunshine Behavioral Health and its medical reviewer Dr. Harshi Dhingra, a medical research reviewer with Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology, we are providing an overview of key points related to meditation and mindfulness and the role that these concepts can play in combating many of the maladies that face us as we grow older. Beginning with a definition of these concepts and a discussion on the benefits they offer, the material extends into techniques for properly and productively engaging in meditation, with tips for beginners as well as those more seasoned who need to improve mindfullness habits. A variety of links to external information sources combine to present a well-rounded examination of this approach to achieving the therapeutic benefits of this holistic practice.
How Meditation Helps You As You Age
Our minds are often more preoccupied with matters of life as we age. We look back at life and wonder about decisions we made and what’s ahead. We worry about age-related illnesses, Alzheimer’s and memory loss, retirement and finances, and other common problems. All these thoughts create so much clutter and “noise” in our heads. Worrying can also lead to panic, anxiety, depression, and a reduced sense of well-being.
Meditation is a holistic mindfulness practice that’s known to have positive effects on your physical and psychological well-being. Mindfulness meditation helps clear the mind and enables you to focus on living in the present. If you’re thinking of including meditation in your daily routine, dive in to learn more about the exciting benefits.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a technique designed to train the mind to increase awareness without judgement. The main focus is on your breathing. You’ll learn to drown out external stimuli and remain in the present by paying attention to your breath. Inhale. Exhale. Feel the calm.
You can meditate any time of the day and in any position you like — standing, sitting, or lying down. Just pick a quiet spot, close your eyes, and begin breathing. Closing your eyes helps to reduce sight distractions.
Meditators enjoy the breathing exercise, as it provides a non-medical way to deal with stress, by calming the mind and body in minutes. Your mind will wander during the process. But you’ll learn how to stop dwelling on thoughts and return your attention to your breath.
6 Benefits of Meditation for Aging Adults
The art of meditation forms part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that was originally intended for stress management. However, research evidence shows that mindfulness-based meditation has other therapeutic effects. For example, it can help people cope with a variety of problems. Even meditating for 2-15 minutes daily may benefit you in the following ways:
#1. Relieves Stress
Life is filled with what seems like endless stressful situations with family, work, and other matters. Hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, flood the body when you’re under stress. Your heart beats faster, breathing increases, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. These changes are a natural response to stress. However, they affect your physical and mental health over time.
While you cannot completely avoid stress, you can change how you respond through mindfulness. Having meditation as a tool helps minimize the effects of stress on your body and mind. Your breathing and heart rate slow down when you meditate. Blood pressure, stress, and tension in the body also decrease.
You should be able to sense calmness throughout your mind and body. You’ll find that you’re able to process your thoughts more effectively and think of helpful solutions.
#2. Reduces anxiety
Fears about aging may lead to anxiety. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, anxiety affects about 10-20 percent of the older population, though it is often undiagnosed. Many older adults are fearful or preoccupied with thoughts about living expenses, care when ill, or depending on others.
Living with constant worry and fear can affect daily functioning, reduce your quality of life, and increase the risk of depression. Calming your nerves through meditation can be a helpful non-medication way to cope with anxiety. A 2013 study found that the practice is beneficial for generalized anxiety since it helps improve your reaction to stress.
#3. Controls depression
Depression is a common mental disorder that affects adults, including about 20% of adults ages 65 and older. Incidentally, chronic stress and anxiety can trigger depression. Symptoms include loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, mood changes, loneliness, sadness, pain, and trouble sleeping.
Focusing on breathing (meditation) and awareness of the present moment (mindfulness) help to manage negative moods and emotions associated with depression. In addition, you’re enabling positive changes in the areas of your brain linked to depression. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) (“me center”) and amygdala (“fear center”) are two important regions of the brain that meditation can help function better, thereby minimizing depression.
#4. Improves Sleep
Troubled sleeping that persists for weeks or months, or sleep deprivation, eventually takes a toll on physical and mental well-being. Seniors commonly experience trouble falling or staying asleep due to hormone changes in the body that affect deep sleep. Stress, anxiety, depression, and daytime napping are other factors that interfere with nighttime zzz in aging adults.
Practicing meditation provides an alternate way to boost your brain’s ability to induce quality sleep, and alleviate insomnia. It also improves the quality of sleep for individuals who do not have existing sleep problems. According to the Sleep Foundation, types of helpful meditation practices for sleep include Mindfulness Meditation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery and Music.
#5. Enhance attention and concentration
Adults lose focus and experience reduced attention span as they age. You may find it difficult, for example, to keep your attention on two or more activities or sources of information at a time. Trouble with focus and concentration result from decreased activity in regions of the brain areas that help you concentrate. Age-related cognitive decline also plays a role.
Focused-attention meditation helps minimize distraction and increase your attention span. Being able to concentrate properly improves performance on visual tasks as well as accuracy.
According to results from a 2019 study, meditating for just 13 minutes a day boosted attention and memory after 8 weeks. Another study showed that listening to a meditation tape led to improvement in attention and accuracy while completing a task.
You’re able to focus better by practicing meditation because you’re essentially training your mind to return to the present. By stopping your mind from wandering, you’re able to stay on task and increase performance and productivity.
#6. Boost memory
Age-related memory loss is a huge concern for seniors. One of their biggest fears has to do with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that results in loss of memory. Age-related decline in cognitive abilities and memory is not only upsetting for aging adults, but it also poses other challenges. For example, memory loss makes you forget what task you were doing, dates, and where you placed items. Some people lose touch with the time of year (seasons) or forget their relationship to or names of loved ones.
While medicinal treatments and cognitive therapy can help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and memory loss, your brain can benefit from meditation. There is evidence that various meditation styles can increase cognitive functions such as memory and mental speed in older people.
In addition to boosting memory and other cognitive abilities, meditation is also shown to improve memory in patients with dementia. This is according to a study that looked at the effectiveness of the Kirtan Kriya (KK) meditation technique.
Age With Calm
Getting old is a natural part of life. Meditation provides a simple way to lessen stress and enjoy a more peaceful life without the use of medication. The holistic practice can transform your life and enable you to fight stress that could lead to substance abuse and other harmful habits. Over time, you may find that you stopped ruminating on the past and worrying about the future.
mindful.org – How to Meditate
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A Non-Pharmacological Approach for Chronic Illnesses
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
aagponline.org – Anxiety and Older Adults: Overcoming Worry and Fear
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity
health.harvard.edu – How Meditation Helps with Depression
mindful.org – How the Brain Changes When You Meditate
sleepfoundation.org – How Meditation Can Treat Insomnia
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Mindfulness Meditation and Exercise Both Improve Sleep Quality: Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Controlled Trial of Community Dwelling Adults
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Brief, Daily Meditation Enhances Attention, Memory, Mood, and Emotional Regulation in Non-Experienced Meditators
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – On Mind Wandering, Attention, Brain Networks, and Meditation
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – The Potential Effects of Meditation on Age-Related Cognitive Decline: a Systematic Review
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – The Silent Epidemic of Senior Addiction
Article specially written for amacfoundation.org by Dr. Harshi Dhingra, medical research reviewer with Sunshine Behavioral Health and the Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology,