Breathe and Focus: How Practicing Mindfulness Improves Mental Health as We Age
By Flora Ma (Clinical Psychology PhD student, Palo Alto University) and Rowena Gomez, PhD (Associate Professor, Palo Alto University)
As we age, it’s natural to worry about possible declines in our mental and brain health. Many older adults are concerned about things like memory loss and poorer attention, forgetting names, and taking longer to learn new things. As a result, as we get older we may feel more distress, sadness, and/ or anxiety that can decrease our quality of life. However, we can do something to address these concerns. The answer is mindfulness. Research shows that it can improve brain functioning, resulting in thinking and feeling better as we get older (e.g., Chambers et al., 2007; Chiesa et al., 2010; Prakash, 2014).
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an Eastern meditation practice that originates from Buddhism (Baer, 2003). It involves directing our attention to the present moment. Mindfulness can help block irrelevant information and enhance emotional control which in turn can improve the mental health of older adults. For instance, mindfulness could be sitting quietly and not letting your mind wonder, but instead focusing on your breathing. You would breathe in slowly from your nose and breathe out slowly from your mouth.
Mindfulness helps cognitive health
Practicing mindfulness improves functioning in certain brain areas associated with paying attention and keeping focus. It can help us become less distracted and increase our focus on what we want to pay attention to (Prakash, 2014). Research on mindfulness demonstrated improvements in concentration, attention, and even memory (Chambers et al., 2007; Chiesa et al., 2010; Prakash, 2014).
Mindfulness helps emotional health
In addition, mindfulness can benefit our emotional health as we age. It promotes an increase in self-awareness that allows for better control of our feelings. We can use mindfulness to focus on positive feelings, and less so on the negative feelings. Research (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Chambers et al., 2007; Ostafin et al., 2006) has shown that mindfulness can:
Decrease depressive symptoms;
Reduce focus on negativity;
Reduce focus on distress; and
Mindfulness benefits us in the short term and long term
In research studies, short-term practice of mindfulness (i.e., practicing mindfulness for 10 days) has helped to improve attention and focus by reducing the effects of distraction (Chambers et al., 2007; Ostafin et al., 2006). Long-term mindfulness training shows greater effects in being able to maintain focused attention which leads to better thinking and mood. So, as with most things, “more” is “better”. The more we practice mindfulness consistently, the better our mental health will be as we age!
Flora Ma is a Clinical Psychology PhD student at Palo Alto University. She graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2014, with a major in Cognitive Systems. She has particular research and clinical interests in aging, neuropsychology and life span studies. She is also a student member of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Rowena Gomez is Director of Clinical Training for the PhD Clinical Psychology Program and Associate Professor at Palo Alto University. Dr. Gomez’s research focus has been in geropsychology, neuropsychology, and depression.
Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. http://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy/bpg015
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1682
Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(3), 303–322. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-007-9119-0
Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.11.003
Ostafin, B. D., Chawla, N., Bowen, S., Dillworth, T. M., Witkiewitz, K., & Marlatt, G. A. (2006). Intensive Mindfulness Training and the Reduction of Psychological Distress: A Preliminary Study. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 13(3), 191–197. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2005.12.001
Prakash, R. S., De Leon, A. A., Patterson, B., Schirda, B. L., & Janssen, A. L. (2014). Mindfulness and the aging brain: A proposed paradigm shift. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2014.00120