Mindfulness and our aging brain

Developing a mindfulness practice may help you improve overall health as you age.

Person holding old photo book with grayscale pictures.
An aging brain has a higher tendency to remember positive aspects of past events, rather than negative.

As we age, our cognitive control declines. In recent years, many programs have been developed and promoted to help stimulate our brains with the goal of delaying cognitive decline. However, the research on whether or not these brain-enhancing activities actually helps is not conclusive. These results are because a part of the brain that is affected by aging, has to do with our ability to focus on a task without getting distracted by internal and external stimulus.

At the same time, as we age, the emotion processing and regulation part of our brain is increasing. Therefore, our brains are a paradox – as we age, starting at about 30 years, our cognitive abilities decline and social-emotional abilities increase.

Another interesting aspect of our aging brain is that we tend to remember the positive aspects of past events, even if those events were overwhelmingly negative. Researchers Mather and Carsten (2005) call this the positivity effect. The tendency to focus on the positive, rather than the negative, may have to do with our realization that we have a limited lifetime. Our goals switch from future-oriented to emotional satisfaction and well-being.

Some researchers are now looking at the benefits of mindfulness as a way to tap into that increase in social-emotional abilities in order to enhance our brain functioning and overall well-being as we age. As defined by John Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement.

Mindfulness has shown to increase our capacity for sustained attention, a cognitive capability. By focusing on the present moment, in particular without judgement, we are tapping into our aging brains’ tendency to focus on our own emotional satisfaction and well-being, rather than plan for the future or dwell on negative past experiences.

There are many ways to learn about mindfulness and begin your own practice. You can look up resources online regarding mindfulness or visit your local library and check out some books. You may also consider contacting your local Michigan State University Extension and signing up for one of our Stress Less for Mindfulness classes. Any way you choose, expanding your knowledge and developing your own mindfulness practice could improve your cognitive, emotional processing and overall well-being as you age.

In conclusion, mindfulness may be a way to improve our cognitive control as we age by teaching us to improve our ability to focus our attention on a particular task, such as our breath, (in the moment) and reduce our attention (on purpose) to external and internal thoughts or events (without judgement).

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