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THE POWER OF PURPOSE

Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Phil Landfield blurted out as we commiserated about his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Landfield is a good friend and outstanding scientist. His mind is still sharp, but his body is becoming increasingly locked into slow and dysfunctional movements as his disease progresses.

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MAKING THE DECISION TO BE HAPPY

It is amazing how much of a difference perception can make in health and well-being. Eric is one of the inspiring people I have met who are managing their serious illnesses with courage and living meaningful, satisfying lives. I met him at a large conference on Parkinson’s disease where patients and support groups were learning about recent advances in understanding and treating the illness. Eric had participated in a clinical trial that involved surgery and receiving monthly drug infusions.

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BE HAPPY AND FLOURISH

Cecilia, a young office intern working during her summer break as a receptionist, was one of the happiest people you will ever meet. She had a radiant smile and a cordial, welcoming voice that was still pleasant at the end of a long day spent talking with clients, many who were very unhappy about their health.

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AGING MINDFULLY, HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER

Aging is admittedly a tough road to travel. It takes longer to heal from illnesses and injuries. Reaction times slow and aches and pain, as well as the risk for developing debilitating diseases, dramatically increase. The long list of diseases for which increasing age is the major risk factor includes arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease. As I am now 74 years old and have dedicated much of my scientific career to discovering better medical treatments for diseases and injuries to the brain, my goal to add more good years to our lifespan has become increasingly personal. Good years are those we can live with vitality and wellbeing.


The good news is we can significantly increase our odds of adding more good years to our lives. It is no secret lifestyle choices made every day about exercising, diet and restorative rest can profoundly boost health and wellness. But there is also something simple you can do that has extraordinary benefits: practicing mindfulness.


The current concept of mindfulness and its spread in our American culture begins with the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program Jon Kabat-Zinn developed in the late 1970s at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. His original focus was on helping patients suffering from high stress due to cancer, cardiovascular disease or intractable pain. The results were so positive MBSR programs were soon extended to treat a wide range of illnesses and help healthy

individuals in all walks of life manage their stress. There are over 6,600 published reports and reviews in the medical literature on their use. In both ill and healthy individuals, the practices have proven to be effective in managing stress, anxiety, pain and depression.(1)  A consistent finding for all groups is an improvement in overall quality of life associated with these benefits.


So what is mindfulness? When asked for a definition, Kabat-Zinn profoundly encapsulates the powerful mind-altering process in one sentence. “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Occasionally, he will add, “as if your life depended upon it” or “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”


Among the long-term benefits of regular mindfulness practices is measurably slowing the brain-aging processes. An international scientific team – Eileen Lunders (University of California, Los Angeles), Nicolas Cherbuin (Australian National University) and Christian Gaser ( Jena University, Germany) – used a high-resolution imaging program to automatically quantify the relative biological age of brains scanned of 50 long-term meditators and 50 non-meditators. Their study had participants ranging from 24 to 78 years old, the groups matched for

age, sex and education. They found the estimated brain age of the meditators was 7.5 years younger than the non-meditators by 50 years of age. The benefits in slowing brain aging continued into the older age groups, with meditators showing a 15-percent slower rate of brain mass loss.


One of the extremely important areas of the brain positively responding to meditation training is the hippocampus, which is crucial for new memory and learning. Severe atrophy – shrinkage – of the hippocampus is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Further analysis of the participants in the abovementioned aging study revealed the brain tissue of the left hippocampus was preserved in meditators while atrophy was seen in non-meditators. Other groups have replicated the positive effects of mindfulness practice on the brain, including the hippocampus.


While the age-slowing benefits are a strong incentive to begin meditation practice earlier rather than later in life, is it too late to begin mindfulness practices at an older age? Apparently not! Mindfulness training has been reported to help elderly people who were beginning to experience excessive anxiety and memory problems. In a seminal study of over 100 individuals 65 years or older, MBSR training significantly decreased depression and worry while improving memory performance.(2)


How does Mindfulness do this? An analogy I have heard that makes sense is our personal stream of consciousness can become a torrent of racing thoughts, sensations and emotions. Mindfulness allows us to anchor for a while in steadfast inner waters. As calmness is restored, one can deliberately focus on and become more fully engaged in the present. Anchorage provides time and space for relaxation and restoration, lowering stress. In the calmness, one can gain clarity and acceptance of reality, paving the way for objectively moving on. Calmly lowering stress promotes wellness of body and mind that is evidenced in physiological measures of stress(3) and brain structural and cognitive changes, along with better immune and cardiovascular functions.


How can one build mindfulness skills? The original MBSR program incorporates group interaction, meditation, light yoga and guided visualization. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to develop these skills in Lexington. The four types of practices are included in the class I teach, Aging Mindfully: Happier, Healthier, through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) for those over 50 years old. Dr. John Patterson’s Mind Body Studio is outstanding and offers a number of courses, including the full MBSR program. Among the many other options available for meditation and yoga are programs at the Lexington Senior Center and in some local churches. There are also excellent Mindfulness apps for Apple and Android platforms. Headspace and 10% Happier are two apps many have found helpful. Headspace has millions of users and the strongest scientific base with its own chief science officer, Dr. Megan Jones Bell, an expert on digital health interventions.

DON MARSHALL GASH, PH.D.

Don Marshall Gash earned his Ph.D. from Dartmouth College and did his postdoctoral training at the University of Southern California. He is a professor at the University of Kentucky, as well as a neuroscientist and inventor. Gash has published over 200 scientific papers and five drug development patents. He is also the business founder/partner for Independence Assistance, Avast Therapeutics and Neuroway (d.b.a. KY Healthcare Training).