Learn These Secrets to Successful Aging

An MGH expert reveals how you can build the mental and physical strength you need to face the challenges of grow-ing older.

If you want not only to survive into old age, but also to age successfully—with an independent, fulfilling, and active life, a sharp mind, and a minimum of illness and disability—learning how to relax may be key, says a Mas-sachusetts General Hospital (MGH) expert.

“A number of strategies—such as staying socially involved and adopting a healthy life-style—have been shown to increase the chances of living a long and productive life,” says Ann Webster, PhD, Director of the highly regarded Program for Successful Aging at MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine. “Among these strategies for successful aging, perhaps the most effective is engaging in practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or repetitive prayer that help elicit the relaxation response (RR)—a physiologic state of deep rest that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Regular experience of the RR helps counteract stress and other factors linked with higher risk for illness and aging, and causes enormously positive physical, emotional, and cognitive changes. The RR forms an important basis of our program for successful aging.”

Dr. Webster’s work is based on an impressive body of research supporting the mental and physical benefits of relaxation techniques. A recent example is a study conducted by BHI researchers and colleagues from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which suggests that evoking the RR promotes changes in gene expression that positively affect key body processes. Researchers compared genomic indicators in the bloodstreams of volunteers who had no experience with RR (novices) to indicators in the same volunteers after they had undergone eight weeks of training in RR (short-term practitioners), and to genetic indicators in a second group of volunteers who had regularly practiced relaxation techniques for four years or longer (long-term practitioners).

Analysis of 22,000 genes in the blood of study participants after a single session of RR practice (see What You Can Do) found little significant change in the gene expression of novices. However, participants who had undergone eight weeks of training as well as those who were long-term practitioners showed evidence of enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and the prevention of cell aging, as well as reduced expression of genes linked to stress-related pathways and inflammation. The longer a participant had practiced relaxation techniques, the greater were the changes in genetic expression, according to a report published May 1, 2013 in the online journal PLOS ONE.

“We know that RR positively affects systems that play a role in conditions such as cognitive decline, depression and anxiety, diabetes, hypertension, disease, and aging,” explains Dr. Webster. “This study helps identify the key physiological pathways through which these benefits operate. Practicing RR lowers heart rate and blood pressure, relaxes muscles, improves sleep, reduces pain, reduces energy metabolism, improves alertness, memory, and the ability to concentrate, and boosts mood—changes that are immensely beneficial to both the body and the brain.”

Self-Care

Although important, learning to elicit the RR is not the only component of Dr. Webster’s nine-week program. She also urges her students to open up various aspects of their lives and develop new attitudes that emphasize optimism, self-care, and a sense of perspective by focusing on the following eight are-as:

  1. Career/self-education: “For many individuals, older age and retirement are associated with withdrawal from meaningful engagement in career and education. Re-engaging in work or school—for example, volunteering, or taking a foreign language course—can help you reconnect with the larger world around you.”
  2. Relationships: “Social isolation can be a major problem for older people. Make an effort to meet new people, and to strengthen your relationships with family and friends. Join groups—face-to-face contact with others is an absolute necessity.”
  3. Creativity: “Creative pursuits, such as writing poetry or quilting, open up new ways of looking at the world—an especially exciting and rejuvenating prospect for older adults.”
  4. Play: “Having fun can help you maintain vitality and forget your pain, physical limitations, or other challenges associated with aging. Amuse yourself with sports and games, and look for activities that make you laugh, such as watching funny movies, or spending time with witty friends.”
  5. Health: “Improving physical and mental fitness can increase your energy and sense of well-being. I recommend staying as fit as possible by getting regular exercise and paying attention to nutrition. Retain your mental acuity by stimulating your brain with new information and experiences, and by practicing mental aerobics using puzzles, games, and other intellectual challenges.”
  6. Altruism: “Joining volunteer efforts to improve the lives of others helps you avoid isolation and stay connected, while benefiting society at the same time. Contributing to the welfare of others not only develops your feelings of self-esteem and efficacy, but also allows you to make new friends. Numerous studies have shown that people who volunteer on a regular basis are healthier than those who do not volunteer.”
  7. Spirituality: “Believing in something greater than oneself—whether it is religion, art, love, or nature—is an important part of leading a successful life. Contemplation of these larger forces can help you gain perspective on the challenges of aging.”
  8. Self-transformation: “People can always change for the better, even in older age. I ask my students to think of positive ways to change themselves. Do you want to be a better grandparent, or a more generous person? Working each day to improve oneself can lead to a sense of satisfaction that makes life more rewarding.”

Keeping Track

Dr. Webster advises her students to measure their progress by keeping daily journals. In these journals, they are urged to record their physical state, and their thoughts and feelings. The process can lead to cognitive restructuring—an alteration in the way a person thinks about events—that may help change their feelings about, and reactions to, those events.

“It’s important to do something good for yourself every day, to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and to express that gratitude,” she says. “Feeling grateful helps shift your focus from challenges such as arthritis pain or grief to the positive aspects of your life. Appreciating your blessings helps strengthen your resilience, and maximizes your ability to enjoy life.”

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