Mindfulness has potential to help aging population, but more study required say experts

Mindfulness, Meditation

A review of 27 mindfulness studies have revealed that while mindfulness has potential to help aging population there is need to carry out more studies to reap the practice’s full potential.

Researchers at Ohio State University carried out a review of 27 studies to determine that the focused attention at the core of mindfulness benefits older people, but others don’t point to improvements. Researchers say that their findings indicate that is a need for more rigorous investigations that will help scientists search for interventions that will be most beneficial. The review paper appears in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Researchers have pointed out that more and more mindfulness practitioners are looking to use the techniques to boost cognitive, emotional and physiological health. However, there have been mixed results so far and effectively means that there is a need for greater investigation to determine exactly how best to apply mindfulness in that population.

“Mindfulness is a practice that really serves as a way to foster a greater quality of life and there’s been some thought that it could help with cognitive decline as we age,” said Stephanie Fountain-Zaragoza, lead author of the study and a graduate student in psychology.

Scientists behind the review say they wanted to determine the level of information and expertise we have with us and how can researchers proceed from here on.

Researchers found evidence from a variety of studies indicate that there is some benefits for older adults, suggesting that mindfulness training might be integrated into senior centers and group homes. Older people are an especially important population to study given diminished social support, physical limitations and changes in cognitive health, the researchers point out.

Studies of mindfulness meditation usually involve three types of practices. The first, focused attention, involves sustained attention to a single thing (such as the breath) and an effort to disengage from other distractions.

Open monitoring meditation, often seen as the next step up in mindfulness, includes acknowledging the details of multiple phenomena (sensations, sounds, etc.) without selectively focusing on one of them.

“This includes being open to experiencing thoughts and sensations and emotions and taking them as they come and letting them go,” Fountain-Zaragoza said.

Loving-kindness meditation encourages a universal state of love and compassion toward oneself and others.

“The goal with this is to foster compassionate acceptance,” said senior author Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, director of Ohio State’s clinical neuroscience laboratory and an expert in mindfulness.

In addition to looking at how mindfulness contributed – or did not – to behavioral and cognitive functioning and to psychological wellbeing, some of the research also looked at its potential role in inflammation, which contributes to a variety of diseases.

In all categories of study, including inflammatory processes, Prakash and Fountain-Zaragoza found mixed results.

The hope is that mindfulness could help the elderly preserve attention and capitalize on emotional regulation strategies that naturally improve as we age, Prakash said.

“Around 50 percent of our lives, our minds are wandering and research from Harvard University has shown that the more your mind wanders, the less happy you are,” she said.

“Mindfulness allows you to become aware of that chaotic mind-wandering and provides a safe space to just breathe.”

In older people, mindfulness ideally has the potential to help with cognition, emotion and inflammation, but little research has been done so far and those studies that have been done have had mixed results and scientific limitations.

While most of the studies in the review showed positive results, the field is limited and would benefit greatly from larger randomized controlled trials, Fountain-Zaragoza said.

“We want to really be able to say that we have strong evidence that mindfulness is driving the changes we see,” she said.