- Older adults learning mindfulness may find that it is both easier and more taxing than it is for younger adults.
- Older adults tend to pick up the emotional part of mindfulness more quickly.
- As we age, we have to work harder to maintain focused attention.
While scientists have studied mindfulness and its impact on psychological well-being since the 1930s, only recently have they examined the experience of mindfulness for older adults. Dr. Ruchika Prakash, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, is one of the first researchers to systematically investigate aging and mindfulness, starting in 2009. Since then, there has been an explosion of research in this area. The findings point to a phenomenon I call the aging and mindfulness conundrum: learning mindfulness may be easier and more challenging with age.
What is mindfulness?
Scientists have defined mindfulness as entailing a state of focused attention combined with nonjudgmental observation of our inner and outer experiences. Thus, mindfulness requires two different skill sets—cognitive skills to maintain focused attention, and emotional skills to achieve nonjudgmental observation. Each of these skill sets can be further broken down: the cognitive skill of focused attention not only requires the ability to focus on one thing and ignore distracting extraneous information but also good working memory. The emotional skill of nonjudgmental observation entails good emotion regulation (the ability to change the expression and intensity of your emotions) and the ability to be present in the moment.
The aging and mindfulness conundrum
Due to age-related processes, older adults who are learning mindfulness for the first time may find that it is both easier and more taxing than it is for younger adults. First, the good news. As we age, learning the emotional part of mindfulness becomes easier. Both Dr. Prakash and Dr. Michele Tugade, professor of psychological science at Vassar College, have seen that older adults quickly pick up the emotional part of mindfulness.
During her mindfulness retreats, Dr. Tugade has noticed that, “When I speak about mindfulness to middle-aged and older adults in seminars, they do seem to do better with the nonjudgmental aspect. In the last retreat I co-led, they have greater ease with the open-focus aspects of mindfulness.” Dr. Prakash’s research also shows that “older adults tend to endorse more present moment awareness, more nonreactivity, more nonjudgmental nature as opposed to young adults.” Why are older adults more facile than younger adults in this part of mindfulness?
An extensive body of research demonstrates that as we age and view the future as limited, we begin to prioritize emotion-related goals, such as feeling good in the moment and deriving emotional meaning from life, because these are goals that can be achieved in the present moment. This higher prioritization of emotion-related goals has been used to explain why older adults report and experience better emotional well-being and emotion regulation than younger adults. For example, a 13-year study found that emotional well-being and stability improved with age. In another study, older adults experienced less negative affect than younger adults during an unpleasant social situation by employing better emotion regulation strategies. Other findings indicate that they are more adept at resolving marital conflict than middle-aged couples, and experience less negative emotions and more affection during the process. Mindfulness practice is another area in which older adults can deploy their emotion regulation skills.
The not-so-good news is that some cognitive abilities tend to decline as we age. Starting in our 40s and 50s, we may start noticing subtle changes in how well we retain short-term information, such as remembering why you walked into a room, and the amount of effort it takes to disengage from distractions (e.g., tuning out other people’s conversations while reading in a café). These two abilities, working memory and attentional control, are needed to achieve the focused attention part of mindfulness. As we age, we have to work harder to maintain focused attention. However, that additional effort appears to pay off. Research findings indicate that both long-term and short-term mindfulness practice can reap cognitive benefits for middle-aged and older adults.
Cognitive benefits of mindfulness for middle-aged and older adults
I’ll start with the long-term cognitive benefits. Studies that compared middle-aged and older adults who are long-term practitioners of mindfulness (10-plus years) to similarly aged non-meditators found that the experienced meditators performed better on tests of attention, processing speed, and working memory compared to the similarly aged non-meditators. In another study, middle-aged expert meditators and age-matched non-meditators completed an MRI scan of their brains as well as cognitive tests. The researchers found that the expert meditators not only performed better on tests of executive function, but also had strengthened neural networks compared to the non-meditators. Thus, long-term practice of mindfulness may contribute to maintaining good cognitive function and better brain health in later years.
For those of you who don’t practice mindfulness, don’t worry: improvements in cognitive function can emerge after just an eight- to 10-week mindfulness training program. These programs typically entail weekly group sessions and daily practice at home. However, even a one-time 10-minute mindfulness training for older adults improved focused attention immediately after the training.
Interested in trying mindfulness?
Dr. Prakash recommends taking a class over using an app: “There are some key components of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs that you cannot get in an app setting. One key component is receiving didactics of why we’re doing what we’re doing from a trained facilitator.” Additionally, “doing mindfulness practices with a community of other people really gives you validation and support for doing this work.”
Dr. Nina Smiley, a co-author of the Three Minute Meditator, agrees. “Older people sometimes are uncomfortable with technology and find this approach off-putting. Also, using an app builds dependence on the app.”
How much time does mindfulness practice take?
Practicing mindfulness can take as much or as little time as you want. On the upper end, mindfulness classes such as the ones that Dr. Prakash facilitates as part of her research are extensive, requiring a weekly two-and-a-half-hour group meeting and five 30-minute self-led mindfulness practice sessions per week. On the other end, Dr. Tugade has demonstrated that “all you need is a few minutes each day to see the benefits to wellness." According to Dr. Tugade, "My own research shows that emotional benefits such as decrease in anxiety and depression, and increase in resilience, can be shown after a recommended practice of two to three times per week.” Dr. Smiley goes even further, helping people transform small moments during the day into mindful moments.
What is exciting about these recent findings is that they demonstrate that learning and practicing mindfulness in our later years is a win-win-win—it enhances emotion regulation skills, can help boost cognitive function, and can be done almost anywhere for as little as a few minutes at a time. As Dr. Smiley points out, “Once the perceived barrier of ‘this takes too much time' is removed, mindfulness can become a welcome part of everyday life.”
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