As I get older, I notice that my peers and I are starting to lose some of the abilities we once took for granted. Aging brings unwelcome changes in our physical fitness, joint health, cognition, and more. And, of course, our pending mortality looms larger for us than it did in our youth.
What can we do to have more health and happiness in that later part of life? One possibility is to become more mindful.
For those who haven’t heard about this yet, mindfulness is a skill that involves paying attention to the present moment—your current thoughts, feelings, and sensations—and practicing acceptance (or non-judgmental awareness) of your experience. Mindfulness can be nurtured informally in your daily life, by focusing your attention on the changing nature of experience, or through deliberate meditation practices. Either way, it could be a boon for aging well.
While research is ongoing in this area, some recent experimental studies and reviews point to the many benefits of becoming more mindful in your elder years. Here is a summary of some of that research and what it has to teach us.
Mindfulness helps prevent depression and anxiety
Luckily, as we age, many of us actually find more happiness in life. There’s something about aging that helps us to let go of some of the trivial things that don’t matter so much, and we tend to experience less stress, pessimism, and regret (at least when compared to middle-aged adults).
But that doesn’t mean some of us don’t fall prey to depression or remain anxious about our future. That can be especially true if we face post-retirement financial constraints or failing health, in ourselves or a partner. This is where mindfulness can help.
In one study, older adults with mild to moderate levels of depression were randomly assigned to either an eight-week health education program coupled with physical exercise or a mindfulness-based therapy program. Before and after, the seniors reported on their depressive symptoms and how much they ruminated, and were tested on how well they could recall specifics from past memories (which someone with depression has trouble doing).
While both groups had fewer depressive symptoms after the program, only the mindfulness group reported significantly less rumination and better memory specificity, suggesting that mindfulness can help reduce symptoms associated with depression in older adults.
In a 2021 analysis of several studies (a meta-analysis), researchers found that mindfulness meditation significantly decreased depression in older adults, with guided meditations being even more effective than unguided meditations.
Similarly, another meta-analysis found that mindfulness programs reduced both depression and anxiety in older adults. Put together, these studies suggest that mindfulness meditation could be good for the mental health of elderly people.
Mindfulness can improve cognition
As we age, some of us experience problems with memory and other cognitive abilities. While some lost mental acuity is normal, there is the worrisome possibility of dementia. While there are many ways to maintain healthy cognition—including regular exercise, social contact, and mental stimulation—you can add mindfulness to your box of tools.
In a recent neuroscience study, researchers randomly assigned adults ages 65 to 80 to either a mindfulness training or a cognitive fitness program that involved solving puzzles, like Sudoku, word jumbles, and crossword puzzles. Within two weeks before and after the programs, people were tested on their episodic memory, executive function (which includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control needed for attaining goals), and overall cognition to see if they had any preclinical signs of Alzheimer’s, and their brains were scanned using fMRI to note any changes in neural activity.
The researchers found that people in the mindfulness group scored better on the pre-Alzheimer’s tests, and in turn had increases in neural activity in the default network of the brain, as well as between the hippocampus (memory center) and cortical parts of the brain.
In a meta-analysis, researchers found that mindfulness-based programs help adults, overall, have better executive functioning and memory, and that these findings hold even for older adults. Another, even more recent, meta-analysis found similar results. This suggests mindfulness could play a role in helping protect our cognition as we age—maybe more so than those puzzles we’re so fond of doing.
Mindfulness might help fight disease
Though no one wants to suffer illness, those of us who are older are more susceptible to it, as we saw so clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, of course, we become more prone to life-threatening illnesses, like heart disease and cancer. So, anything we can do to keep up our immune systems and improve our health is useful. Here, too, mindfulness may help.
Several studies have found that mindfulness improves our immune function. For example, one recent study found that older people with mild cognitive impairment randomly assigned to a mindful awareness training had better immune profiles afterward than a similar group who’d gone through a health education program. In fact, two meta-analyses of several studies found that mindfulness-based practices seem to affect our immune system in several positive ways—by reducing C-reactive protein (implicated in inflammation) and by increasing CD4+ (helpful for our immune response) and telomere length and activity (suggesting better chromosome protection and, hence, greater longevity and health).
Other studies have found that being more mindful improves one’s heart health. For example, one study with older adults found that people on medication for congestive heart failure who went through an eight-week mindfulness program experienced less anxiety and depression, but also had better clinical scores than other heart patients who’d simply received medication (and normal treatment).
Though it’s unclear exactly how mindfulness might improve heart health, a recent review of several fMRI studies suggests mindfulness meditation may increase cerebral blood flow when the brain is at rest, stimulate an anti-neuroinflammatory response, and allow better deliberate control over our neurovascular system (for example, turning on our parasympathetic nervous system through breathing exercises).
For all of those reasons, practicing more mindfulness could help protect us from heart disease.
Mindfulness can help us manage pain
Who doesn’t suffer from aches and pains as we age? It’s a time of life when our joints may give out and need replacing or we may have an accident and now our back won’t stop hurting.
Fortunately, we can better monitor and manage pain through mindful attention—in part because mindfulness helps us see that pain isn’t monolithic, but shifts depending on our reaction to it. That insight can help us to better manage it.
There are myriad studies showing how mindfulness programs (especially Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR) can relieve pain, and many of those studies include older participants.
For example, in one study, older adults with physical limitations due to chronic back pain were randomly assigned to either an eight-week MBSR or a health education program. By comparing functionality and pain levels right after and six months after the programs were over, the researchers found those who’d received MBSR functioned better afterward and had reduced pain up to half a year later.
Why mindfulness helps with our pain may have to do mostly with how practicing it can reduce stress. But it may also be due to how mindfulness seems to work on our brains, deactivating regions of the brain associated with painful experiences.
Another benefit of mindfulness is that it can help us to avoid unnecessary accidents that may lead to pain or disability. There’s nothing like paying close attention to the present moment for being able to notice hazards ahead and steer clear of them.
Mindfulness leads to better overall quality of life
What most of us want out of our elder years is a better quality of life—and there is ample evidence that being more mindful can help.
For example, one 2023 study measured “trait mindfulness” (how mindful people were in everyday life) within a group of individuals who were mostly over 80 years old, and then followed their trajectory for a year. Those higher in trait mindfulness initially had less disability and negative emotion—and a year later, they were more likely to be alive—than those who were less mindful. As another study found, mindfulness helps us improve our sleep, too, something that’s bound to improve our health and bring more joy to our lives.
Recent meta-analyses suggest multiple benefits to older folks who practice mindfulness. One found that it helps with everything from pain to sleep quality to cognition to happiness. Another found that elderly people who are more mindful have better cognitive control and feel less stressed.
Though not everyone is mindful by nature, we can still increase our mindfulness through practice. We can try mindful breathing, mindful body scans, mindful eating, mindful walking, and more to improve our own attention to our present moment experience. By doing so, we not only help ourselves to be more resilient to the challenges of aging—we may make our lives more joyful in the process.