Young woman and man sit with crossed legs and meditate with brain icon on the background. Vector illustration

Let’s Age Mindfully

by Melva Burton


I remember reading, some years ago, a lovely poem by Jenny Joseph about growing old disgracefully. Maybe you remember it? It was called ‘Warning’ and started off with “When I’m an old woman I’ll wear purple…” I’m thinking that it is great to have a choice about the way we age. So, do I want to grow old gracefully, disgracefully or is there another option? Recently I’ve noticed, with interest, quite a few articles on mindful ageing. Maybe this concept has started bubbling away in my mind because I had (yet another) big birthday not so long ago.

Andrea Brandt shares her wise words about mindful ageing in her book aimed at the over 50s. She describes how it’s about accepting and embracing changes that are an inevitable part of growing older while recognising and focusing on the positive aspects of ageing. She talks about how those of us who are over 50 aren’t over the hill but at the top of the mountain. She urges us to let go of the things from our past that are weighing us down emotionally and focus on what brings us joy, alongside savouring the good stuff in the present moment. She points out that we can’t always control what happens in life but we can control how we see and react to it. The way we see ageing has a lot to do with how happy we are as we age.

A few months ago, David Robson published a book – The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life. It points to research over five decades that suggests people who see the ageing process as a potential for personal growth tend to enjoy much better health into their 70s, 80s and 90s than people who associate ageing with helplessness and decline. Differences are reflected in their cells’ biological ageing and their overall life span. He also says that older people who are caught up in negative age stereotypes tend to have higher systolic blood pressure in response to challenges compared to those who have positive stereotypes. Interesting!

The way we see ageing has a lot to do with how happy we are as we age.

I have spotted an article in a weekend newspaper outlining research from Columbia and Harvard universities that suggests that the ‘senior moments’ suffered by older people when trying to recall facts and events could simply be down to their brains being full to bursting with the knowledge that has been accumulated during their lifetimes. This clutters up the brains of the over 60s and, while this can be frustrating, the compensation is that this life experience can be an advantage with creativity and decision making.

It is reported that mindfulness practice has many potential physical and psychological benefits as we grow older, including better focus, enhanced calmness, less stress and improved sleep. Research shows that mindfulness can reduce depression and pain, and boost emotional wellbeing. There is some evidence emerging from the USA that mindfulness practice can offset age-related cognitive decline as well as activating the “feel-good” prefrontal cortex.
It often seems like misplacing our keys, forgetting people’s names and struggling with maths-related stuff is a given as we approach middle age. The label ‘age-related cognitive decline’ is stuck on it and we tend to accept it. Previously scientists believed this decline was inevitable but research during the past two decades has focused on neuroplasticity – our brain’s capacity to change with experience and training throughout our life. It is said that a regular mindfulness practice may increase mental flexibility. That’s good news for us all.

We can help ourselves by taking little steps right now so that, like a good wine, we get better as the years progress.

I completely get how it helps with managing moods and emotions. Taking a mindful pause gives us the space between a stimulus and our reaction… we just need to remember to press that pause button. Too often we are wrapped up in past or future thinking with our head whirling till it feels like it might go pop. However, as many people have heard me repeat in the sessions that I run, mindfulness is not a magic pill. If it was then I’d be a rich drug dealer by now! Instead, we sow the seeds of mindfulness in little ways in our daily lives and water them through regular practice to embed them and strengthen their roots.

A place to start is to notice the good around us right now and let it sink in.

Over in Sheffield, John Darwin, Mike Pupius and others run Mindfulness Based Life Enhancement courses. The four key themes to their approach to mindful ageing are grouped around heightening mental and physical wellbeing, enhancing life through mindfulness practice, realigning towards the positive rather than the negative, embracing change and seeing ageing as bringing new possibilities. Sounds spot on to me and it has got me thinking about putting together a mindful ageing course to get us ahead of the trend where I live in Pendle. We can help ourselves by taking little steps right now so that, like a good wine, we get better as the years progress. A place to start is to notice the good around us right now and let it sink in. Using the science of positive neuroplasticity, we can override our brain’s negative tendencies and tap into the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures that promote happiness, love, confidence and inner peace. This sounds to me like ageing mindfully. A new adventure awaits us all…

A reminder about what mindfulness is about…

Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and noticing what is happening while it’s happening.
• It’s about being on our own side with kindness when it’s a difficult moment.
• It’s about pausing to take in the good in enjoyable moments.
• It’s about not living our whole life on automatic pilot.

Let’s just pause

1. Place your feet on the floor and your hand on your thighs, and close your eyes.
2. For a moment, bring your attention way down to your feet. Just notice your feet on the ground, notice your seat in the chair, notice your hands on your legs.
3. Now find your heart beating, find your pulse somewhere in your body. Bring your mind, your attention, into your body as quickly as possible.
4. Now place a light attention on the natural rhythm of your breath. With your mind resting on your breath, you may start to notice a sense of ease. You may start to notice, as you exhale fully, that there’s a little bit less tension. A little bit less noise.
5. There’s not much to do when all you need to do for the next few moments is notice your feet, notice your hands, notice your heartbeat and notice your breath, landing on any one of those areas in your body is just perfect. A perfect way to take a pause.
6. And now open your eyes if they have been closed, and just notice what a few moments of pause can do. Our bodies are magnificent, brilliant, stabilising systems when we give our body and our mind the opportunity to balance and align.

NorthernLife May/June 2022