Your mental health matters throughout your lifetime. Whether you had a rough childhood or an idyllic one, whether you experienced a midlife crisis or not, a healthy mindset makes all the difference as you age. The challenges associated with later life—caring for aging parents, strained relationships, memory loss, and more—may be unavoidable. But by focusing on your mental health by practicing mindfulness, you’ll not only enjoy a more fulfilled adulthood—increased energy and focus, elevated mood, improved memory—you may also curb your risk of developing dementia.
According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, practicing mindfulness and meditation can help relieve chronic stress, which has a significant negative impact on brain health and may accelerate cognitive decline.
We want to help you enjoy later life so we’ve compiled this resource guide that includes:
- Advice for making mindfulness part of your everyday life
- Simple ways to practice meditation
- Real-life stories of achieving mental wellness
Why Mindfulness Matters for Healthy Aging
While you can’t prevent aging, there’s also no reason to fear it, says Sherry Skyler Kelly, a West Hartford-based clinical neuropsychologist and licensed psychologist, who began her training in mindfulness practices in 1992.
“The good news is we have a lot more control over our aging than we at first realize,” says Kelly. In the therapy and coaching work she does across the country, Kelly has evaluated adults of all ages through a variety of cognitive changes.
She found that adults follow a pattern of wellness or decline, and the path they take is heavily linked to one area: lifestyle choices. This led her to create a “MAKE-it-positive” plan for healthy aging that involves having each of these elements in your life every day:
- M = Mindfulness, Meditation, Mood, Mindset & Music
- A = Activities & Action (Behavioral Activation)
- K = Keeping Connected to Others & Social Support
- E = Exercise & Energy Work
Reducing Stress by Practicing Mindfulness
Even if you make the choice to embrace a healthy lifestyle, how can mindfulness help reduce stress in your daily life? Joy Rains is author of “Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind” and host of the podcast “Mindful 180” and she believes it all comes down to staying present.
“Since mindfulness helps you experience life in the ‘here and now,’ you may notice tension that you hadn’t noticed before,” says Rains. “For example, you might realize that your breathing is shallow or your muscles are tense or that you’re adding to your stress by imagining negative scenarios. Becoming aware of tension can help you release it.”
Practicing mindfulness is possible anytime by simply pausing and checking in with your body, Rains says. “Notice your breathing, even for one breath. Feel the soles of your feet as they touch the ground when you walk. Notice the feeling of the water as you wash your hands.”
Meditation in Five Easy Steps
You can also learn to become mindful by practicing meditation. Rains offers these simple instructions to get started.
First, choose a consistent time and location, such as a chair or floor cushion in a quiet room. Start with 2 to 3 minutes daily, setting a timer if needed. As you become used to meditating, gradually increase your time to 15 to 20 minutes. Try to fit in at least a few minutes a day to maintain a routine, Rains recommends.
For your daily routine:
1. Start by sitting up straight, without being rigid. Keep your spine aligned with your head and neck. Gently close your eyes. Try to release any physical tension, keeping your body relaxed but your mind alert.
2. Choose an anchor—a neutral object or idea to focus on that doesn’t stimulate your mind. Examples of commonly used anchors include your breath, your body, a word repeated silently, such as peace; sounds, such as ocean waves; or an object to hold, such as a smooth stone.
3. Rest your attention on your anchor. Every time your mind wanders, gently refocus on your anchor. For beginners, this may be as often as every second or two.
4. Accept your wandering mind. The intent of meditation isn’t to suppress thoughts and feelings. Consider anything that draws attention away from your anchor to be like a cloud passing or like a boat floating by as you watch from the riverbank. Allow it to pass without judgment and gently refocus on your anchor—the repetitive action of refocusing trains you to become mindful.
5. Continue gently refocusing on your anchor for the rest of your practice time. Repeat this cycle each time you practice meditation.
Learn more about the benefits of meditation for older adults.
10 Steps to Better Mental Health Through Mindfulness
Better mental health is a whole-body practice. Consider these methods from mindfulness experts to boost your wellness from wherever you are, whatever your background or mental health status. Remember, these are daily practices, so be patient with yourself as you establish these healthy habits.
Eat Fruits & Veggies
Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables—at least 9 to 13 daily. A well-balanced diet will enhance your physical health and your mental health. In fact, some studies have shown that just by eating fruit, you can increase your feelings of happiness, Hill adds.
Have a Support System
These individuals will hold you accountable in self-care and help you engage in activities to prevent isolation, says Hill.
Talk to Someone
Sometimes just verbalizing your problems to a kind ear offers a relief valve when you’re suffering and can ease anxiety levels, says Jeffrey Butch, MS, MSN, APRN, clinical hypnotherapist and co-founder of Mindhealth Clinical Hypnotherapy.
Eat Good Mood Foods
Your gut microbiome hosts over 90% of your body’s serotonin receptors, which brings a whole new meaning to the saying, “You are what you eat,” says Swanson Health’s registered dietitian and nutritionist, Lindsey Toth, MS, RD. “Some feel-good foods include dark chocolate, which provides nutrients like magnesium to help calm the mind, and avocados, which give a B vitamin boost for coping with daily stressors.”
Maintain Intergenerational Connectedness
In today’s busy society, older family members may feel disconnected, irrelevant and unappreciated—and strained or estranged relationships can be a catalyst for anxiety or depression, says author Lisa Swift-Young. By sharing some wisdom from your life journey with younger family members, you can bridge that gap and foster more meaningful connections.
Change Your Focus
If you’re spending hours a day following every breaking news announcement, especially if it’s negative, you’re going to be in constant distress, says Peggy Sealfon, personal development coach, productivity strategist, motivational speaker and author. “Turn off the digital news flow—TVs, tablets, cell phones. Listen to your inner voice and turn off depleting thoughts of overwhelm or hopelessness.”
Meditate on a Consistent Schedule
It’s better to meditate for 10 minutes each day than an hour three times a week. This is because of how the mind and brain function,” says Jaya Jaya Myra, a best-selling author and TEDx Speaker. “Consistency helps to rewire your neural connections to form better habits.”
Do Something You Love Everyday
Establish a daily routine doing something you love. This is more important than sitting to meditate, Myra says. “When you take at least 10 minutes a day that’s just for something you enjoy, it’ll be much easier to take 10 minutes for something you feel you need to do (like meditation).”
Practice Mindful Eating
Author Bracha Goetz started to curb her desires for overeating—which often came from feeling bored, lonely or anxious—by asking herself one simple question: “Is it my body that’s hungry—or my soul?” Instead of overeating, call or text someone, get up and stretch, go outside, or listen to your favorite music, she recommends.
Practicing Mindfulness and Meditation in Real Life
Find hope and motivation in these real-life stories of thriving in the midst of life’s challenges.
Donna F. Brown – Practicing Mindfulness Through Yoga
“I have experienced my fair share of anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness and mental illness throughout the course of my lifetime,” says Donna F. Brown, a 68-years-young author, musician, certified yoga instructor and retired registered nurse who currently lives in a small rural community in Pearce, Arizona.
After bouts of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and chronic pain from endometriosis—which brought on depression, anxiety, grief and other health issues—Brown felt isolated, alone and desperate for change.
“When I resumed practicing yoga and meditation, they taught me discipline in my practice both physically and mentally. The more disciplined I became in my meditation practice, the less despairing, anxious, lonely and isolated I felt,” she says.
After becoming a yoga instructor, Brown taught the same principles she learned as a student. She also taught yogic breathing techniques to her patients when she worked as a nurse and found them to be very effective for overcoming mental and physical health issues.
Cameron Cromwell – Practicing Mindfulness Through Martial Arts
Shortly before his 56th birthday, Cameron Cromwell found himself unemployed.
He was grateful to leave a toxic work environment, but Cromwell was filled with uncertainty and anxiety from mounting financial pressures that included a new mortgage and his daughter’s college education.
As his family continued in their day-to-day norm, an isolated Cromwell struggled to maintain a positive mindset, and he missed the social interaction of the workplace.
Exercise gave him a starting point—and it was also the tipping point in his mindfulness journey.
“One day, on a complete whim, I attended a free kickboxing taster session. No physical contact, just exercise and some basic techniques,” he says. “It was high-energy and filled with people of all ages that wanted to be healthier and stronger. I loved it.” Before long, Cromwell was attending every class.
From grappling to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Cromwell learned that martial arts was about more than physical fitness. The practice emphasized good nutrition, a healthy mindset, better sleep and new social connections. He’s now the founder of Absolutely Martial Arts, a website that provides information on getting started with martial arts. “It was the positive social interaction full of encouragement that I needed,” he says.
Key Mental Health & Mindfulness Takeaways
Anxiety, depression, dementia, grief and loneliness may be common experiences in later life, but the good news is they don’t define you. You’re not alone, and you can do something about these feelings.
Keep these mental health wellness practices in the forefront, no matter what challenges come your way:
- Stay active in a variety of ways.
- Remain connected to friends, family and community.
- Become focused through meditation and a positive mindset.
- Stay engaged in hobbies new and old.
How have you incorporated practicing mindfulness to boost your mental health in later life? Tell us in the comments below.
If you’re looking for more ways to bring wellness to your life, check out our 30-day Wellness Challenge. You won’t see any low-fat recipes, sleep strategies or exercise tips. Instead, you’ll find simple daily activities designed to remind you that wellness is a journey, not a destination.