If you regularly took MRI scans of a Buddhist monk’s brain for 15 years, what would you find? 

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison did exactly that. They also scanned 150 other people’s brains during the same period. When they compared the grey matter on all the MRIs, the monk’s stood out: his brain appeared eight years younger than his actual age!

But why? The researchers believe the monk’s practice of meditating — more than 60,000 hours throughout his life — slowed the aging process in his brain.

It’s an intriguing finding that suggests there’s a powerful tool to help seniors improve their well-being: mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

Meditation is just one way to practise mindfulness. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “mindfulness is simply an invitation to step out of the clutter and really focus on what we are doing, thinking and feeling in this moment.” Key elements of mindfulness are: 

  • Focusing on the present vs. the past or future
  • Paying attention to internal elements (e.g. our thoughts, feelings, breath and bodily sensations)
  • Listening to external stimulants (e.g. sights, sounds and sensations in our environment) without distraction, resistance or judgment

Following these practices can help people feel less worry and regret. It can also help them get in touch with their emotions, body and physical surroundings, appreciate what they have and accept or come to terms with difficulties beyond their control.

Mindfulness for a positive mental and emotional state

Think about how useful those things could be during this pandemic! 

Science suggests mindfulness could be particularly beneficial for the group at highest risk during the pandemic: seniors.

For example, one pre-pandemic experiment showed mindfulness helped seniors aged 60 to 91 maintain a more positive mental and emotional state than people aged 25 to 35. Further research has indicated mindfulness can aid seniors with digestion, stress, depression, memory and cognitive function.

Here’s more on how meditation and two other popular mindfulness activities, tai chi and yoga, can improve the lives of older adults.

Meditation 

Meditation is the act of filtering out distractions to focus your attention and calm your mind in a quiet, relaxed way. This sometimes involves: 

  • deep breathing
  • guidance (an instructor gently suggests images, postures or breathing techniques)
  • mantras (words or phrases repeated verbally or mentally) 

Some studies have found meditation even reduces inflammation in the body. Scientists say this data, coupled with the research on the monk’s brain, could hold promise for combatting neurological issues like Alzheimer’s disease.

Tai chi

You’ve probably seen seniors in the park doing tai chi, a series of slow, graceful movements designed to improve balance and reduce stress. According to science, it works! 

Harvard University researchers say tai chi helps older adults maintain muscular strength, improve physical reaction time, sharpen mental focus and shift attention between tasks.

A 2017 study also found that seniors who did tai chi one to three times per week suffered 20 to 40 per cent fewer falls.

Yoga 

Like tai chi, yoga is a low-impact exercise that’s associated with improvements in the body as well as the mind. However, seniors should consider some important differences between the two activities.

Movements

  • Although you can practise yoga and tai chi while seated, tai chi is most commonly done standing.
  • Yoga can include lying down, bending, reaching, stretching and kneeling. Tai chi consists mainly of sweeping arm and leg motions while in an upright position.
  • Tai chi movements are constantly fluid. Yoga largely transitions from one static pose to another.

Suitability

  • Seniors experiencing trouble standing or moving down to the floor and back up again could find yoga challenging.
  • For seniors with severe arthritis, tai chi may be more manageable than yoga.

Benefits

  • Experts say yoga can reduce mental stress, strengthen muscles that support the back and ease pain in the back and other exoskeletal regions such as the neck.
  • Tai chi hones skills used to stay upright, including balance, leg strength, mental focus and awareness of bodily sensations.

To explore mindfulness, yoga and tai chi, seniors can check out The Bright Spot’s virtual classes in all three — absolutely free.