Attention and Ageing

In his review of the impact of age on cognition Murman (2015) concludes: “Measurable changes in cognition occur with normal aging. The most important changes are declines in cognitive tasks that require one to quickly process or transform information to make a decision, including measures of speed of processing, working memory, and executive cognitive function. Cumulative knowledge and experiential skills are well maintained into advanced age. There are structural and function changes in the brain that correlate with these age-related cognitive changes, including alterations in neuronal structure without neuronal death, loss of synapses, and dysfunction of neuronal networks.” 

But Murman identifies lifestyle factors that may improve neuroplasticity and limit this neurodegeneration.   “There is emerging evidence that healthy lifestyle choices improve the dynamic balance toward neuroplasticity and away from neurodegeneration including eating a healthy diet; avoiding excessive alcohol consumption; exercising regularly; participating in cognitive stimulating activities; managing emotional stress, which might include meditation; and managing medical problems such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obstructive sleep apnea.”

Research on neuroplasticity and telomeres reinforces this.  Thus Blackburn and Epel [2017] comment: “Nobody had any idea that meditation and the like, which people use to reduce stress and increase wellbeing, would be having their salutary and well-documented useful effects in part through telomeres.”


Research has identified the value of formal mindfulness practice in several areas:  reducing cognitive decline, improving executive function, improving attention, addressing loneliness, decreasing psychological distress, and addressing depression.  There is also evidence that mindfulness may impact the ageing process itself.   Here are six examples.


First, Moynihan et al, in a study of MBSR for older adults, conclude that  “To our knowledge, this is one of the first reports of the use of MBSR for a relatively healthy older adult population.  Our data do suggest that MBSR maintained initial levels of theoretically meaningful changes in left frontal brain alpha asymmetry, and increased executive control, consistent with theorized effects of mindfulness training and with some previous research with younger populations.” (2013:10).  Since executive function helps connect past experience with present action, it is valuable to for activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

Second, McHugh et al undertook a study of 24 people aged 71 to 90, giving half of them a focussed attention task.  They concluded:  “One phenomenon linked to cognitive deficits, particularly attention, that has been demonstrated to emerge with ageing is over-selectivity. Over-selectivity occurs when behavior is controlled by a limited number of stimuli in the environment.  … The results of this study indicated that the level of emergent over-selectivity in an elderly population was significantly reduced after a focused attention induction when compared to an unfocused attention induction.” (2009)


Third, we know that loneliness is a major problem for old people.  The findings of Creswell et al are therefore important.  They took volunteer healthy adults aged 55-85 through an MBSR programme.  They concluded: “Using a randomized controlled trial design, the  present study identifies MBSR as a novel approach for reducing loneliness in older adults. … This study provides a promising initial indication that the 8-week MBSR program may reduce perceptions of loneliness in older adults, which is a well-known risk factor for morbidity and mortality in aging populations” (2012)


Fourth, Young et al studied  141 adults aged over 60 who completed MBSR training.  They found that: “Overall emotional distress and all sub-scale mood measurements improved significantly following MBSR training. MBSR training resulted in >50% reduction in the number of older people reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety.”  They conclude: “MBSR training is a promising, group-based intervention for decreasing psychological distress in older adults.” (2010:59)


Fifth, Smith et al (2007) studied 30 people over 65 who completed an MBCT course, and concluded: “In this study many older people with recurring depression reported benefit from a course which taught them mindfulness meditation, integrated with elements of cognitive therapy targeting risks for depressive recurrence.”

Sixth, Pagnoni and Cekic (2007) used MRI to compare grey matter volume and attentional performance in 13 regular practitioners of Zen meditation and 13 matched controls.  They concluded that “the regular practice of meditation may have neuroprotective effects and reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging” (2007:1623)

It is reasonable to conclude therefore that mindfulness courses which help participants to strengthen their capacity to concentrate and pay attention are of increasing importance as we age.