DO SUDOKO, play bridge or learn a new language are just a few of the prescriptions we hear about to keep an aging brain agile. Among oft-mentioned solutions, the most appealing to me is mindfulness: Keep doing the things you’re doing, but do only one activity – washing dishes, walking – at a time, with greater awareness and attention. While cooking dinner, focus on the smells and sounds; don’t read the newspaper or answer the phone. Try eating one almond: Concentrate on how it feels in your hand, then on your tongue – the texture, the saltiness.
If your mind keeps wandering back to the to-do list, follow your breath slowly in and slowly out, until you feel calm enough to remember which ingredients you’ve added, how many almonds you’ve eaten, where you put your phone. Or use STOP: Stop, Take a breath, Observe (thoughts and feelings) and Proceed. For example, on arriving at home, STOP before entering your house to think about one positive thing you’ve done that day.
The advantage: lasting improvement of “working memory,” which keeps track of what you’ve recently said, done or heard. Working memory is directly impacted by stress, including: ongoing daily stress; prolonged effects of childhood stress from abuse or neglect; depression and anxiety disorders. With recent research showing that stress is increased by feelings of helplessness, the sense of control and calm gained through mindfulness makes a good antidote. Mindfulness training has helped soldiers withstand high-stress deployments, according to research by Georgetown University Professor Elizabeth Stanley and others.
Mindfulness studies by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer gave a group of men the chance to turn their body clocks back two decades. In a New England hotel redone to resemble the late 1980s, the men were told not to reminisce about the past but to pretend they had traveled back in time. After one week, compared with a control group, these men had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity, improved gait and posture and improved mental acuity. And they were judged by outside observers to look younger. According to Langer in her book “Counterclockwise,” by resisting mindless acceptance of negative cultural cues about old age that shape our self-concepts and behavior, we can “mindfully” open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives.
“Aging” thoughts or feelings, which can arise when you can’t touch your toes or you forget a recipe, are targets for mindfulness because they evoke regret and comparisons to our younger selves, “two patterns that take us away from our present situation,” according to Lewis Richmond, in his online “Mindfulness of Aging” lectures. So if you can’t believe you are 20 years younger, as in the hotel experiment, avoid negative thoughts by staying in the present.
If regret and comparisons are impossible to escape, if mindfulness cannot be employed to feel and look younger, you can always chant the slogan: 60 is the new 40.
Local mindfulness guru Jonathan Foust, senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW), recommends three routes to mindfulness: some kind of daily practice, even lasting just a few minutes; occasional intensive practice – half- or whole-day retreats; and finding a group involved with spiritual or mindful practices that meets regularly. Many options for learning and practicing mindfulness can be found at IMCW. If you prefer working on your own, workbooks and CDs are available online from IMCW and from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) program and others.