By Dr. Ellen Choi
When my mom first immigrated to Canada, she was a nurse’s aid to a woman name Mary. Mary took my mom under her wing, taught both of my parents to speak English, and babysat my sister and I when my parents were working. Mary spent her life caring for others. She traveled all over the world and would recant stories of her adventures serving in African villages inspiring many of her colleagues to work and travel in a time where just to be a working woman was inspiring on its own. Shortly after Mary turned 60, she told these stories again and again, sometimes launching into the same story she had just told as if it were a song being played on repeat. You see, Mary had dementia. And it was heart-breaking for us to watch.
Many of us will be impacted by the tragedy of diseases related to aging. For some of us, age-related cognitive decline may already be manifesting in our everyday lives be it elusive words that sit on the tip of our tongue, or forgetting faces that were once familiar. If nothing else, these mental shortfalls should remind us that as time forges on, we are all likely to experience a further decline in our ability to process, recall, and organize information. Cognitive ageing is what researchers describe as a deterioration of the mind’s abilities, for example working memory, executive control, and processing speed.
In the age of the knowledge economy where our ability to think clearly and quickly for sustained periods of time can determine our success, how to mitigate age-related cognitive decline is a sexy question.
Meditation, or mental techniques that train the mind, is one way to keep our minds and memory sharp. Recent findings confirm that mindfulness training not only enhances cognitive functioning and increases the amount of information we can hold in our working memory, for instance, but it may also offset age-related cognitive decline. One compelling study examined the cortical thickness in the region of the brain responsible for higher order thinking to find that the average thickness of meditators 40 to 50 years old was similar to that of a 20 to 30 year old. This suggests that meditation may help prevent deterioration of gray matter in the brain as we get older.
Today's Power Up: Meditate for 3 minutes to spark your brain
You really don’t have to meditate for an hour in lotus position on a cushion to benefit from mindfulness. Even a short amount of time can create an enormous shift in how your think and feel. Find somewhere comfortable and reasonably quiet to sit and set a timer for 3-minutes. If you’re able to try meditating now, then do it! Once you’re set up, follow these three steps:
1. Become aware of your inner experience. Close your eyes and take a minute to ask yourself “what’s actually going on with me right now”. Tune into your thoughts, feelings, and any bodily sensations. Maybe you’re tired, maybe you’re stressed out about something at work, maybe your chest feels tight, maybe you feel joyful. Just notice where you’re at, and let it be.
2. Find your belly breath. Bring your attention to your abdomen and feel the physical sensation of breath as your body breathes in and your body breathes out. No need to change your breath in any way. Just feel your belly inflate as you inhale and deflate as you exhale.
3. Expand your awareness. Allow your attention to spread to your body as a whole. Become aware of the position of your body. Expand your awareness to your other senses – what do you hear, smell, taste?