I recently had the great pleasure of presenting at the 2017 National Hartford Center of Gerontological Nursing Leadership Conference (NHCGNE). The conference’s theme was the future state of global aging, dementia, and mental health. My presentation was on the use of mindfulness as a form of self-care for health care professionals and on its clinical application within the geriatric population.
The presentations were well received, and indicative of both, the growing interest in and recognition of the benefits of mindfulness to our overall well-being, and its growing recognition as an integral component of our mental health care.
How Mindfulness Prevents Brain Aging
What I am most pleased to report though, is that besides my presentation, in at least two other sessions, one by Kevin J. Manning, PhD & David Steffens, MD from UCONN, and another by Kristine Yaffe MD, from UCSF, mindfulness was recognized as one of the most important elements in mental health care and specifically for the prevention and slowdown of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The growing consensus confirms the benefits. There are no uncertainties: mindfulness plays an essential role in preventing and reducing a variety of mental health disorders, especially those resulting from natural age-related functional decline.
Researchers now fully agree that when it comes to mental health, regular mindfulness practice is effective:
- in reducing cognitive decline and late-life dementia
- helping to cope with anxiety and depression
- improve memory, focus, and concentration,
- reduce stress
- improves emotional modulation compassion and empathy
Study after study shows how the practice of mindfulness positively impacts areas of the brain affected by age-related mental declines. Additionally, mindfulness practice helps by increasing cognitive functionality thereby encouraging neural network growth (with connections between new and existing neurons) and cortical growth (growth of new brain cells). In other words, studies show that regular mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain!
The brain, as we now know from neuroplasticity findings, changes as we experience the world on a daily basis. This means that even later in life, our brain continues to change and grow when well-exercised and stimulated. The theory that our brain stops developing after our twenty’s is now fully debunked. Our brain doesn’t stop changing unless we stop using it. The old adage “use it or lose it” is true especially when it comes to our brain and its ability to perform at peak levels, and for that matter, to the health of the whole body.
The important take away from the research is that even later in life the brain changes and develops when engaged in activities that promote more brain function such as learning new skills, new educational experiences, complex cognitive processing, creativity, and of course, exercise and meditation.
Benefits of Mindfulness Exercises
Research also shows that other important factors for a healthy brain are sleep, relaxation, good nutrition, low-stress levels, it doesn’t hurt if one has a high IQ, and accumulates some healthy mental reserves thought life (i.e. prior to retirement one has had a professional and/or personal life rich of mental stimulation and activity).
Mindfulness practice, as over 300 peer-reviewed studies and 124 trial studies show, positively impacts areas of the brain that otherwise lose their capacity and functionality resulting in the advancement of a variety of mental health declines. These areas of our brain are associated with memory, focus and concentration, emotional regulation, judgment, and higher functioning.
The list of benefits goes on. Other parts of the brain positively impacted by mindfulness practice include areas associated with:
- coping with pain, depression and anxiety
- our capacity to be more compassionate, empathic, self-aware, creative, better communicators; and
- socially/relationally more competent
Of course, most of these benefits also benefit the body as measured in biomarkers testing where lower blood pressure, increased immune response, lower stress hormones levels, and lower inflammatory states are clearly reported.
In other words, mindfulness meditation helps improve our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. If you’re interested in having an active, healthy brain as you age, the longer you put off exercising your brain, the more difficult it will be to achieve your goals. You can start practicing simple mindfulness techniques right away.
Mindfulness Meditation: Quick Start Guide
The great news is that you can begin reaping the benefits of mindfulness meditation in as few as 10 minutes of practice a day. You can start your practice today by following these easy steps. First, though a few things to keep in mind:
- AWARENESS: Mindfulness practice is about being aware of some experience you are having ‘in the moment.’ To keep it simple, we start by being aware of the breath.
- PATIENCE: You’ll soon discover that the mind will get distracted quickly at first. So be patient, don’t be discouraged, and don’t be hard on yourself – the mind is used to jump around from thing to thing and needs a little time to adjust.– the more you practice the easy it will be.
- REGULARITY: To be most effective, mindfulness practice should be done regularly, ideally every day, and preferably at the same general time. First thing in the morning, and/or before going to bed, are the most recommended times.
And now let’s get started! Follow these seven easy steps to start your mindfulness of breathing practice.
- Find a comfortable space where you can sit quietly. TIP: You do not need to sit on a meditation cushion unless you want to, a chair, sofa seat or other will work.
- Once seated, make sure both of your feet are on the ground, and keep your back straight.Relax your shoulders and arms, and your hands on your thighs or lap. TIP: If possible don’t lean against anything unless you have some back problems (this will help you stay present).
- Close your eyes. TIP: If you feel that closing your eyes will put you a sleep, keep them slightly open and look at the floor about 4 to 5 feet ahead of you.
- Bring your attention to the breath. Without changing your breathing, pay attention to how the breath moves in and out of the body. TIP: you can place your attention to the sensation of breathing at the nose or your chest and belly – this will help you relax and stay focused.
- Follow the breath for its entire cycle: breathing in…breathing out… Be prepared to experience some distraction from the breath. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, ideas and so on will arise. This is normal especially when first starting.
- When the mind wanders away from the breath, notice that it has happened, and return to the breath without making it a problem TIP: counting the breath helps you stay focused. Count each breath to 10 after each exhalation, and if you get lost, start again.
- Continue to be aware of your breath and let go of everything else. Following the breath without distraction may not be easy the first few times but it will get better with more practice. TIP: start practicing with short periods of time to get used to it – 3 to 5 minutes at first should help, and then build up to 10 to 20 a day.
To help you get started with your practice, here is a free 3-minute guided meditation for you to try. Hope you enjoy it, and feel free to let me know about your experience.
If you interested in a more in-depth guide to mindfulness practice, you can sign up for my next Six-Week Introductory Course to Mindfulness in Orinda, California.
I hope this information and meditation practices are of support to you and your life.