4. Try meditation
Over the years, researchers have linked different forms of meditation to cardiovascular health, pain relief, a healthy immune system and stress reduction. Now, they're discovering it also changes the very structure of the brain and may help preserve cognitive function.
Researchers in the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital took MRI scans of a small group of people with no meditation experience before and after they enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness stress-reduction program.
The results were remarkable: Compared to a control group, meditators showed an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus (devoted to learning, memory and attention) and a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with emotions, anxiety and stress).
In a different study with experienced meditators, meditation also appeared to slow down the normal thinning of the walls of the brain: Gray matter in some brain regions of the 40- to 50-year-olds was similar in thickness to that of their 20-year-old counterparts.
According to study coauthor Sara Lazar, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, "Participants reported feeling less stressed after the program. This was correlated with a change in brain structure, which suggests that they were not just imagining it. Their brains actually are different."
Tip: There are many types of meditation. Mindfulness focuses attention on the present, helping you observe problems without reacting emotionally to them; transcendental meditation uses a mantra (a special word) as a focal point to quiet the mind; in guided imagery or visualization, you are led by a teacher (in class or on tape) to tap all your senses and imagine a calm, relaxed state. Tai chi and yoga incorporate deep breathing and meditation into various poses.
There's no right or wrong way to meditate, nor is one method better than another. Try different types until you find one that works for you. (Check your public library or online for books and tapes to get you started as well as classes at a health club or senior center.)
Be patient with yourself since it may initially feel silly, even unsettling, to disengage from the busyness of your mind. Ideally, set aside at least 15 to 20 minutes twice a day to meditate. But even a five-minute break to sit quietly, feel planted on the floor, breathing slowly and deeply from your abdomen, can break the gridlock of stress.
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