Benefits include stress reduction, slower aging, less loneliness and more happiness.
In our speedy, modern world, an increasing number of people are turning to a 5,000-year-old method to relieve stress and calm their minds. Everyone from actors to politicians are embracing meditation, and everything from corporations to senior living facilities are offering meditation classes. This mind and body practice has a long history of increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.
Modern science is starting to verify some of meditation’s benefits. While some research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure; symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression; and insomnia, evidence of its effectiveness for other ailments, such as pain, is uncertain. The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) catalogs research done on meditation for various ailments.
Extensive evidence supports meditation’s effectiveness with emotional issues such as stress. According to research, meditation can increase immune function, which is related to having less stress in our lives. Although science doesn’t yet know precisely how the meditating brain affects the immune system, some studies have found that meditation changed brain circuits that regulate emotion and may reduce markers of inflammation and stress hormones like cortisol.
Changes in the Brain
Several studies have shown that meditation can actually alter the brain.
A 2011 Harvard study found that participation in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a popular meditation program, is “associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking.” Specifically, researchers found an increase in the part of the brain that governs learning and memory and also in the part that regulates emotions, as well as decreases in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.
In a 2012 study from the NCCIH, researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults didn’t. Results ratified previous findings about the increased ability of the brain and suggested that meditation may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
Benefits for Seniors
In 2015, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers studied older people who have been meditating an average of 20 years. They found that these older meditators had more gray matter volume in the brain, suggesting that they were aging slower than their non-meditating counterparts.
Previous studies have also shown increases in longevity for those who practice mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that focuses on awareness rather than breathing. One study concluded that by decreasing negative emotions and stress hormones, meditation protects the chromosomes that mark physical aging while promoting cell longevity.
Meditation may also slow Alzheimer’s. Because anxiety and stress can worsen Alzheimer’s symptoms, meditation may protect the brain. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center divided a group of adults ages 55-90 into those who regularly meditated and did yoga and those who didn’t. The meditation/yoga group had less atrophy in parts of the brain and better brain connectivity than the control group.
In addition, several studies have shown that meditation can reduce health costs, with one study showing fewer hospitalizations among meditators and another showing reduced healthcare expenses.
Increased concentration. By sitting still and focusing on our breathing, we are able to calm our active minds. A study at Yale University found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in part of the brain network that is triggered when our mind wanders from the present moment and our thoughts take over. By stopping our wandering mind, we are able to better focus on the task at hand.
Reduced stress. Because anxiety can result from unregulated and out-of-control emotions and thoughts, mindfulness meditation can help calm those thoughts and decrease stress, according to a 2013 study published by Oxford Academic.
Less depression, more happiness. A University of Wisconsin study of mindfulness meditation found an increase in electrical activity in the left frontal lobe, an area that tends to be more active in optimistic people, after eight weeks of training in meditation. Another study showed that a form of meditation known as loving-kindness, “produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.”
Less loneliness. Because meditation can bring about more acceptance of ourselves, it follows that we are more tolerant and forgiving of others. A UCLA study compared seniors who meditated with those who didn’t. After two months, the meditators felt less lonely, while the others felt more isolated. Loneliness, especially prevalent in seniors, has been shown to negatively affect our health and has been linked to a weakened immune system, depression and early death. The UCLA researchers theorized that meditation may curtail gene inflammation, which has been linked to feelings of loneliness.
Meditating in a group can also help relieve feelings of isolation and promote a sense of community with others.
How to Meditate
There are many spiritual traditions that promote meditation as well as secular programs that offer classes. Ideally, you will find what works for you (see sidebar), but here are some basics.
Where to Find Support
If you would like to learn the finer points of meditation, many places offer meditation classes. You can check out your community or senior center or local colleges. Health plans may offer meditation or mindfulness courses as a way of keeping their clients healthy. Research different techniques, such as Transcendental Meditation, on the web or YouTube.
While meditation started out as a spiritual practice connected with Buddhism and Hinduism, there are many secular forms. One popular secular regimen is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which you can study online.
The right place. Start with finding a calm, quiet place in your home that is free from distractions, such as your computer. If you live in an urban area, meditation centers offer daily or weekly meditation.
Sitting. Though the standard photo of someone meditating shows them sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a meditation cushion, that might not work with aging knees, hips or back. Many senior meditators use a chair. Whichever position you choose, sit up straight and do not slump over. An upright posture keeps you alert while holding a dignified position befitting the meditation practice.
Different meditation disciplines recommend keeping your eyes open or closed. Closed eyes reduce visual distractions but can also lull you to sleep. Try different techniques, such as eyes gazing downward, to see what works for you.
For those who have a hard time sitting still, an alternative is walking meditation. This can be done in your home or a nearby park. Instead of just concentrating on the breath, you can focus on your movement, especially your steps. Or you can open your awareness to everything around you: a bird’s cry, the wind on your face, a child yelling. The trick is not to become fixated on any one thing.
Focusing. The traditional way to calm your mind is to pay attention to your normal breath. Notice the soft inhalation and then exhalation. Consider inhaling with your nose and exhaling through your mouth—or vice versa, or count your breaths—forward or backward. When your mind strays, gently bring your awareness back to your breath.
How long? Start slowly, maybe five minutes at a time, and then gradually increase to as much as an hour a day. Ideally, meditate at the same time of the day so this practice becomes a routine. The more you meditate, the better you become at controlling your thoughts.
“Meditation Heals Body and Mind,” WebMD.
“7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain” Feb 9, 2015, Forbes.
“20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today,” Sept. 11, 2013, Psychology Today.
“Meditation Guide For All Ages,” Jan. 13, 2017, Integrity Coaching.
“What are the health benefits of meditation?” Nov. 10, 2015, New York Times.
“What’s the Bottom Line?” National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
“8 Ways Mindfulness Benefits Seniors,” Feb. 12, 2014, Place for Mom.
“Senior Living Communities Practicing Mindfulness,” May 12, 2014, Place for Mom.
“How to Meditate for Beginners,” Conscious Life.
“5 Meditation Tips for Beginners,” March 18, 2013, Psychology Today.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors