Many of us may have resorted to costly creams and cosmetics in a bid to retain youthful appearances, but often such treatments are only skin-deep, and beneath the surface, the body clock continues to tick. Studies now reveal that we must nourish the mind-body connection and adopt an optimistic outlook if we truly wish to achieve healthy ageing.
“Healthy” and “ageing” are words rarely used simultaneously, as the process of maturation is often met with an attitude of loss. However, we all have the capacity to reframe our concept of ageing— acknowledging its potential gains, such as wisdom, understanding, strength, skill and spirituality—and evoke profound psychological and physical transformations that can reshape our lives.
“As humans, we are a complex of interrelated systems; including our anatomy, physiology and psychology. And we exist within a larger complex of systems, including our interpersonal relationships and our environment. The key to healthy ageing lies in the balanced interaction of all these systems, and our human body-mind has an innate understanding of this,” explains Alison Dear, a nutritionist and yoga teacher at Health Interactive.
Genetics w as once considered the predominant determining factor as to how well we age, but recent studies paint a broader picture. The emerging field of epigenetics (factors controlling gene expression) has proven we can age faster or slower depending on what we do, think and are exposed to.
“What speeds up ageing? In essence, we could say stressors, such as mental pressures, emotional stress, poor nutrition and environmental toxins,” says Dear.
According to Dear, prolonged stress can have numerous repercussions such as: increased cortisol (stress hormone), heart rate, blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels, clotting factors, and protein degradation of muscle. In addition, stress can also decrease short-term memory, cellular immunity and growth hormones—which are all vital for healthy ageing.
Our ability to deal with stressful situations effectively throughout life greatly influences how our bodies mature. Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, biological researcher at University of California, revealed the depth of this connection when she discovered telomeres and their importance in ageing. Telomeres are found on the ends of long strands of entwined DNA, embedded in the centre of our body’s cells to assist optimum functioning; the shorter the telomeres become in response to our lifestyle and stress levels, the older we become genetically and the more age-associated illnesses we are prone to.
Blackburn’s 2004 study on healthy post-menopausal women identified lower optimism and higher pessimism w as linked with shorter telomeres, greater inflammation and increased risk of disease and early mortality. Pessimistic participants measured about 10 years genetically older than those optimistic, which is ideal encouragement to stress less!
Instead of allowing negativity to speed up the ageing process, could we positively think ourselves younger? Harvard University social psychologist, Professor Ellen Langer, is a pioneer researcher into this phenomenon, ha ving conducted a groundbreaking experiment with nursing home residents in the early 1970s. The study aimed to have selected residents engage with their lives more mindfully by improved personal decision-making; choosing things like where to receive visitors, if and when to watch in-house movies, and how to care for a house plant they were given. A control group was given no such choices, and instead presented with house plants nursing staff cared for. One year later, Langer discovered the engaged group were not only more cheerful, active and alert, but also substantially healthier, with less than half the control group’s death rate.
“Subsequently, I realised that making choices results in mindfulness, and perhaps our surprise was because of the mindlessness we shared with most of our culture,” recalls Langer in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books, 2009).
“If we put the mind and body back together so that we are just one person again, then wherever we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well—and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.”
This experiment prompted Langer to dig deeper with her 1979 “counterclockwise study”, which aimed to answer this: if the mind rewound 20 years, would the body follow suit?
She selected eight relatively healthy men aged in their 70s and 80s to commune for a week-long retreat in a New Hampshire monastery. This, mind you, wasn’t any old retreat; decked out with convincing décor and entertainment from their past, walking inside was like stepping into a time machine that transported them back to 1959 . They conversed as if they were truly in this period, rather than reminiscing, and dutifully became proactive household members. Interestingly, participants displayed such improvements as memory, hearing, eyesight, dexterity, appetite, joint flexibility, cognitive function, blood pressure and IQ—all without medical intervention.
“Mindfulness is vital for health and vitality, as it allows us to know ourselves better at all levels. It makes us more likely to detect imbalances in our physical, mental and deeper states that can lead to illness if unrecognised. We can all benefit greatly from it—even if we aren’t permanently or semi-permanently mindful—just by committing five minute’s-plus daily to a mindful meditative practice,” explains Dr Stephen McKenzie, researcher and lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Psychology and co-author, with Dr Craig Hassed, of the new book Mindfulness for Life (Exisle Publishing, 2012).
According to Dr McKenzie, reconnecting with our natural state of mindfulness—commonly clouded by complexities of life—often begins with becoming a w are of our unawareness. Just think: do you ever mindlessly motor through life to arrive at a destination unable to recall the journey, seem particularly accident-prone, or perhaps look at your watch but don’t really see the time? Developing awareness is just one step, as mindfulness has another key ingredient: acceptance. “We also need to be accepting of what we’re aware of. Acceptance of whatever is happening at the present moment can help us accept what is happening in our entire life situation,” advises Dr McKenzie.
Kate Marie, co-author of F ast Living S low Ageing (Mileage Media, 2009), knows first-hand the anti-ageing benefits of mindfulness practices, but emphasises it’s a slow process that requires long-term commitment. “As with all slow things, if regular mind-body practices become embedded in the fabric of our lives, they will become progressively more sustaining and invigorating as years go by,” she assures.
This may sound difficult, but it’s entirely achievable given the practice’s flexibility and potential for individualisation. Powerful and popular meditative applications include Yoga Nidra, or full-body scanning and relaxation, breathing exercises, creative visualisations in which you see yourself ageing happily and healthily, or simply sitting quietly and paying attention to ambient noises.
“Most techniques involve slow-paced, steady breathing, using the diaphragm rather than chest muscles, and slowly increasing the volume of air with each inhale and exhale. Think: low, even, smooth, slow—and gain a growing awareness of the processes involved in your breathing,” suggests Marie.
A 2005 study by neuroscientist Dr Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, suggested such practices may also prevent rapid age-associated loss of grey matter in our brains—that is, the bit that connects the dots to form actions. The experiment revealed a spot of grey matter within the brains of 50-year-old meditators was impressively as large as that of someone half their age.
Aside from formal practices, daily life presents many opportunities to exercise mindfulness; even so-called mundane duties like cleaning the dishes or hanging out washing, which could be stimulating metaphors for cleansing the mind. Many also report mindful moments when engaged in contemporary physical exercise or ancient mind-body practices such as Tai Chi, qigong and yoga.
“Yoga is the ultimate mind-body system, because the term includes not only asana, but also the ‘Eight Limbs’ [ethical guidelines toward enlightenment]. It’s a sizeable collection of lifestyle practices and attitudes that can turn the struggle of inevitable ageing into a transformation that takes us beyond our limited human vulnerability into the realms of consciousness,” says Sal Flynn, a Sydney-based psychotherapist and teacher of yoga and mindfulness meditation.
“A mindful yoga practice invites us to bring our attention to what’s happening right now, including thoughts, emotions and body sensations, without judgement. It’s only right here in this moment that we can make contact with the reality of things, where we can attend to this thing called change and learn to embrace it, work with it, one creative moment at a time,” she says.
Truly embracing change may involve challenging original ideas surrounding ageing. “Recognise that change doesn’t necessarily mean getting worse; that limits are of our own making; and that old age and illness are not the same thing,” urges Langer. “There can and should be growth in late adulthood.”
a practice of mindfulness
Dr Stephen McKenzie and Dr Craig Hassed, authors of Mindfulness for Life, offer this full body scan, which they believe is generally the best mindfulness practice for beginners.
Begin by being conscious of the whole body and let it settle. Progressively become aware of each individual body part, starting with the feet. Allow the attention to rest there a while, feeling whatever is there to be felt. Let the attention move to the legs, stomach, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck and face, pausing a while at each point. How much time you intend to dedicate to the entire practice will determine how long you spend at each individual body part; simply notice what sensations are taking place, moment by moment.