How Meditation Improves Our Health As We Get Older

09/15/2016 11:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You've heard that meditation is great for reducing stress and improving concentration, but it's even more impressive to see what it can do for our health as we age. Multiple studies show that regular meditation can significantly improve attention, memory, verbal fluency and help prevent cognitive decline.

If you're not already a regular meditator -- or if you're a skeptic and need convincing -- here are a few good reasons why you should take time every day and be still.

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Meditation is an ancient mind-body practice that's used all over the world to cultivate a sense of peace, relaxation and well-being. There are many ways to meditate, but Mindfulness Meditation is practiced and studied in the United States most often.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness Meditation focuses awareness on present moment activities, sensations, thoughts and feelings. It helps you to accept and release your thoughts without judgment and without allowing them to grab your attention.

During meditation, practitioners experience a period of deep relaxation, called the relaxation response. That relaxation response is thought to reduce stress hormones, change brain waves and release all kinds of healthy benefits throughout your mind and body.

Researchers note that when we meditate for as little as 20 minutes a day, there are multiple physiologic changes that benefit our health from head-to-toe. In fact, The National Centers for Complimentary and Integrative Health says that regular meditation can physically change the brain and improve a host health problems.

Meditation Is Good for The Heart

Multiple studies demonstrate that meditation is good for heart health. It's shown to improve hypertension, type 2 diabetes and high cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.

Research also shows that when we meditate, we're more likely to engage in other healthy behaviors as well.

Meditation Counteracts Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied 19 IBS patients who took part in a nine-week mindfulness meditation program that helped elicit the relaxation response.

The patients experienced significant improvement in their irritable bowel symptoms upon completing the program, offering further evidence that meditation can help counteract the harmful effects of stress on those who live with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Insomnia Is Helped by Meditation

Meditation is also believed to have a regulatory role on sleep. One study indicated that mindfulness meditation helped chronic insomniacs regulate their stress levels and their attitudes toward insomnia, which helped them gain a greater sense of control over their sleep.

Meditation Reduces Anxiety

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that 30 minutes of daily meditation may improve anxiety and depression symptoms, on par with antidepressants.

Meditation Is Good for Your Spirit

Beyond the physiologic changes that can improve health, meditation also improves the mind-body-spirit connection, which some practitioners credit for keeping them healthy.

Swami Prakashananda, Senior Meditation Leader at The Movement Center in Portland, Oregon, has taught and practiced meditation for more than 40 years. "Meditation improves your health because it improves access to your life force," said Prakashananda.

"Our life force is what's responsible for our health. It's the force that makes us breathe and makes our hearts beat. It's the energy that's in everything."

Prakashananda noted that meditation is like a clog buster for the plumbing in your house. "Before meditation, the pipes are all gunked up and the water, aka your life force, doesn't flow very well," he explained. "After meditation, life force flows more easily, which helps you release tensions, aka, the crud that gunks up your pipes."

Prakashananda says he's living proof of the life-saving power of meditation. "A few years ago, I had a massive heart attack," he explained. "I had severe blockages in four arteries -- 90% and higher -- and the cardiologist said, 'I can't figure out why you're alive.' When I told him, 'I meditate,' he looked me in the eyes and said, 'That's why.' Meditation won't guarantee you'll never have health problems, but it'll certainly increase your odds and help your body recover when you do."

How Do You Start Meditating?

Meditating can be as simple as closing your eyes, gazing at a candle or other object, or repeating a mantra while you follow your breath. While any amount of meditation will do you good, you'll see the most benefits with daily practice.

Give this technique a try:

Pick a quiet time and place where you'll be free from distractions for 20 minutes. Sit up straight but comfortably on the floor or in a chair, or lie down with your back as straight as possible. Close your eyes and fold your hands in your lap, or touch your forefinger and thumb together and rest your hands palms up on your thighs.

Take a few slow, deep breaths and pay attention to how those breaths feel -- the coolness of the air, the pace of your breath. Then, inhale and exhale at your own natural rate.

For the rest of your meditation, follow your breath, quiet your mind and relax. When your mind wanders (and it will, to begin), simply let go of the thought and return your focus to your breath. When your meditation is over, open your eyes; stretch and go about your day with a renewed sense of well-being.

When you're ready for more, increase the amount of time you practice or find a teacher or group in your area to practice alongside. Meditation podcasts are another convenient way to bring more peace and calm into our lives -- especially for those of us who travel a lot, or are constantly on the go. Here are five free podcasts we particularly like.

Jeanne Faulkner is an RN with 25 years' experience working in women's health. Based in Portland, OR, she's the author of Common Sense Pregnancy and writes about health and wellness for a variety of publications and websites. As a CARE chairperson for advocacy, she's traveled worldwide to raise awareness of poverty eradication and global health issues.