According to the Population Reference Bureau the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060 in the United States. In percentage this means that the share of the 65+ age group will rise from 15 percent to nearly 24 percent. That’s a huge jump!
Birth rates in Western countries have been low for years, contributing to the increase is senior people’s share of the population. People also live longer, due to improved medical treatments, people staying in the workforce longer than they did 20 years ago, and people leading a more active lifestyle in their senior years.
We live longer, but how can we live longer in good health?
It’s in our human nature that not only our physical capacity lessens slowly and steadily, but also our mental functions decline and our risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases increases.
While we cannot influence our genes or avoid ageing altogether, there is a growing awareness about the fact that we need to do our part to stay healthy and fit.
As research has shown, meditation can have a tremendous effect on people’s mental and physical health and overall well-being.
With the 65+ age group on the rise, it’s time to look at what meditation can do explicitly for the seniors in our society. And, if meditation can slow down the mental decline that’s as much of a worry as the possibility of physical illness in older age.
Top 7 Benefits of Meditation for Seniors:
1. Improved Memory and Neurocognitive Functions
Memory, reasoning, attention span, and other and cognitive functions decline as we get older. There is no way around it. Or is there?
These functionalities are stored in the gray matter, the thick outer layer of our brain. Studies have shown that people who have been meditating regularly for at least 8 years, not only had better memory and cognitive functions than non-practitioners but that the gray matter of their brain was thicker, illustrating the better functionality even anatomically.
Age-related diseases like Dementia are also an expression of decreasing neurocognitive functions. Alzheimer, the most common form of Dementia, is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. According to recent studies, the evidence is growing that meditation can play a role in even preventing Alzheimer’s disease. How?
Meditation helps to decrease high-risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, plus it increases the cerebral blood flow. These benefits, when looked at together means that meditation can be a powerful tool in preventing neurocognitive diseases.
2. Improved Focus and Alertness
Meditation sharpens the mind, it helps us focus and concentrate so we are more switched on and less sleepy during the day. Why is that? As meditation slows down your mind, and prevents the famous ‘Monkey Mind’, as Buddhists like to call the mind that’s all over the place, your brain doesn’t multitask as much and is more relaxed. As a result, you also need less sleep.
3. Improved Sleep
Relaxation has been shown to improve sleep for people of all ages. It might be a busy lifestyle, physical pain, or worrying thoughts about declining health that’s keeping you awake at night. A regular meditation practice during the day or before bedtime helps relax the mind and prepare it for sleep. This is due to the fact that meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that turns on when we relax, vs the “fight or flight” mode that is active when we are anxious, stressed, or excited.
4. Improved Digestion
Our metabolism becomes slower with age, that’s a given. We can work with it by eating nutritious foods and drinking enough water, but if this is not enough, try meditation. When we meditate, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which is responsible for our “rest and digest” mode. Switching off our survival mode, that’s unfortunately on duty most of the time in our modern world, really helps our digestive function. Activating our parasympathetic nervous system allows the body to better assimilate nutrients from the food we’ve eaten and to excrete the waste products.
5. Reduced Physical Pain
If you are suffering from an illness or chronic pain meditation can help reduce the impression of pain. Medication can have strong side effects, is expensive, and can cause addiction. By relaxing the body and the mind, the pain can ease up as you approach your pain in a more gentle and loving way. You learn how to work with the pain, instead of against it. Mindfulness meditation was proven to be able to lower chronic pain by more than 50 percent. Practitioners who have been meditating over the course of many years could reduce the pain score even more.
6. Reduced Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression in seniors is often caused and increased by physical issues, loss, loneliness, or big life changes. While they are not always reported, mental health issues are widely spread. As shown in many studies over the last five years, mindfulness meditation can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, offering an alternative to antidepressants and empowering affected people to use meditation as a tool to feel better. It is strongly advised, however, to consult with a therapist first.
7. Decreased Feeling of Loneliness
Getting older can be a very lonely business. If you don’t have family looking after you, people find themselves living in a home with strangers looking after them.
A study from 2012 has shown that a mindfulness-based stress reduction course has reduced the feeling of loneliness in seniors. This is not only important for your mental wellbeing but also has a direct effect on your health.
The study showed that the gene that is responsible for a proper response of your immune system during infection was mediated by meditation. So we see once again, a direct link between mental well-being and physical health.
The whole of our society can benefit physically and mentally from the immense benefits of a regular meditation practice. With the above seven benefits of meditation in mind, I hope to see more meditation courses offered specifically for seniors in community centres and nursing homes.