The Many Benefits of Meditation for Older Adults
Doctors often prescribe the practice for better health and wellness, even later in life.
You can start a meditation program at any time, even without a doctor’s OK.(WESTEND61/GETTY IMAGES)
WHEN DR. STEPHANIE Cheng conducts health exams with older adult patients, she often goes beyond reviewing their medications and determining treatment plans. Cheng incorporates meditation exercises into the visits. “If I notice they are overwhelmed or have emotional distress, I may do a brief meditation exercise with them, just so they can be exposed to it as a tool to feel a greater sense of well-being,” says Cheng, a palliative care physician in the division of geriatrics at the University of California—San Francisco.
Cheng’s approach isn’t unconventional. Meditation is a well-studied practice shown to have many health benefits. It’s commonly prescribed as a way to help treat chronic disease and mood disorders. That makes meditation a natural fit, Cheng says, when older age brings physical, mental and emotional changes.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a way to calm the mind and body. It requires that you sit or lie down, relax and pay little attention to thoughts as they drift in an out of your mind. “It can be viewed as an antidote to the fight-or-flight response,” Cheng says. “When you meditate, in general, the breath slows down, heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, stress decreases, digestive function improves and the sense of tension in the body decreases.”
- Transcendental meditation: focusing on a word or sound that you repeat over and over (such as “peace” or “om”).
- Mindfulness meditation: concentrating on the present moment without judging it. Offshoots include mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT. “MBSR is more to reduce stress. MBCT helps you cope with emotional stressors,” explains psychologist Moria Smoski, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Health.
- Guided imagery: focusing on mental images, such as a beach or a calming environment.
- Centering prayer: a religious practice that uses a sacred word to focus on connecting to a higher power.
- Body scan: concentrating on one body part at a time and investigating its sensations, such as how it feels where it touches the floor or bed, whether it’s cold or hot and whether there is pain or tingling.
Benefits for Seniors
Meditation is associated with many psychological and physical benefits. “In general, it’s been shown to decrease blood pressure and inflammation. And there’s some data around improving coronary artery disease outcomes and helping with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic painand headaches,” Cheng says.
Meditation is also associated with reductions in irritable bowel symptoms, depression, anxiety and insomnia, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Several areas of research appear to be especially encouraging for older adults:
- Memory. “Meditation is associated with enhanced short- and long-term memory,” says neuropsychologist Jean Lengenfelder, assistant director of traumatic brain injury research at the Kessler Foundation.
- Cognitive decline. “Meditation may help preserve cognitive function in folks who are starting to have struggles with memory and cognition. It’s associated with maintaining function longer than if you didn’t have a meditation practice,” Smoski says. A 2014 review of a dozen studiesinvolving older adults, published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, suggested that meditation was linked to positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed and general cognition.
- Digestion and circulation. “One study found that people who meditated had improved circulation and oxygen in their blood. For the elderly, that’s important because as we age, digestion and circulation problems develop,” Lengenfelder says.
- Stress. “Meditation has been shown to decrease stress and have a calming effect on older adults,” Lengenfelder notes. “That can help them organize their thinking and give them a clearer perspective. They have improved focus, and their mind is sharp.”
- Loneliness. A 2012 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity linked eight weeks of mindfulness meditation with decreased loneliness in older adults.
“It can be transformative,” Smoski agrees. “I’ve seen meditation help people feel more grounded as they’re going through difficult situations. It improves their sense of resiliency.”
You can start a meditation program at any time, even without a doctor’s OK. You’ll find free meditation podcasts on the internet. Smoski recommends turning to academic mindfulness centers for those, like the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
If you’d like to try a meditation class geared toward older adults, look to local senior centers, hospitals, private studios and retirement facilities.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to a class that’s age-appropriate. Lengenfelder points out that you can adapt any kind of meditation to work with your physical and cognitive limits. For example:
- If you have trouble getting up and down from the floor, you can sit in a chair or lie in a bed. “Research has shown that meditation done in a chair still has that benefit of lowering blood pressure and heart rate and increasing feelings of well-being,” Lengenfelder says.
- If you have hearing impairment, you may feel more comfortable listening to a meditation podcast at a volume that’s best for you. In a classroom, you may want to sit in the front near the instructor so you can hear directions.
- If you have cognitive decline, it may be easier to practice guided meditation. “It will provide a lot of cuing, and you won’t have to rely on your own thoughts to get through the meditation,” Lengenfelder explains.
And some of the best parts about meditation: It’s pill-free, you can do it anywhere and it works fast. “We don’t know how long it takes to feel better; some people report improvements even after one meditation session. It enhances their mood and increases their energy,” Lengenfelder says. “The more frequently you meditate, the more benefits you can experience.”
“It’s so accessible,” Cheng says. “There are so many forms of meditation that everyone can find what resonates with them and weave it into their daily lives. I’m sure the trend will continue.”