Buddha’s Teachings that Support Older Persons’ Well-being
To join the celebration of the International Day of Older Persons, let’s delve into the remarkable ways in which the Buddha’s two teachings – emotional management and meditation – can support and promote healthy aging in modern times.
The International Day of Older Persons, celebrated annually on October 1st, was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1990 to recognize the contributions of older persons and to promote their rights and well-being. There are many meaningful ways to celebrate the International Day of Older Persons, such as dedicating our time to volunteer with organizations that support older persons, advocating for their rights , and just simply spending quality time with them.
(Photo credit: World Health Organization)
When spending time with older persons, it could be mutually beneficial to engage them in conversations on matter of life and spirituality, as they have their own wisdom to impart, and younger persons have new perspectives that can be eye-opening.
In matters of spirituality, the Buddha stands as one of the greatest teachers whose wisdom and advice we should seek.
About 2,600 years ago, the Buddha lived in Asia and peacefully passed away at the age of 80. Before his death, he left behind many teachings that can be applied to older people in the present day to enhance their well-being. These teachings encompass invaluable insights into mental management and meditation.
Let us explore the profound wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings and their relevance in promoting older persons’ well-being in our modern world. Research suggests that teachings on mental management and meditation offer potential benefits in healthy aging. They can positively influence factors such as cellular health and elevated glutathione levels. Additionally, they can help foster an inner sense of peace and acceptance, alleviating the anxieties associated with aging.
In this article, I will explore both the scientific knowledge and practical approaches to anti-aging practices and healthy aging, and the Buddha’s teachings on emotional management and meditation as effective strategies for coping with psychological stress – to have mental well-being. These insights are beneficial for everyone, with a particular emphasis on the elderly population.
What is aging?
Scientifically, aging is the process of becoming older. It is a natural and universal biological process characterized by the gradual deterioration of organisms over time, which involves changes at the molecular level, a decline in physiological functions, and increased vulnerability to diseases.
The Buddha taught that aging is an intrinsic and inescapable aspect of human life – after birth comes aging!. He emphasized the importance of developing mindfulness and awareness regarding the process of aging, both in oneself and others. By nurturing a compassionate and clear understanding of the bodily transformations that occur, we can approach aging with qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—as a means to transform one’s relationship with aging.
Causes of Aging and the Challenges it Presents: What We Should Know
Aging is a complex process influenced by multiple factors, including genetics, environment, lifestyle, and emotions. Several key factors contribute to the aging process:
- Telomere shortening: Telomeres naturally shorten with each cell division. As telomeres shorten, cells lose their ability to divide and regenerate, leading to the aging of tissues and organs.
- Oxidative stress: This key driver of aging occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals can damage cells and DNA over time, contributing to the aging process.
- Hormonal changes: As we age, our hormonal balance shifts, which can have various effects on the body, including reduced muscle mass, bone density, and changes in metabolism.
Apart from biological factors, environmental and lifestyle choices play a significant role in aging:
- Environmental Factors: Exposure to pollutants and toxins in the environment can accelerate aging and increase the risk of age-related diseases.
- Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices: Habits such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and a poor diet can also contribute to premature aging.
- Emotional Impact: Chronic psychological distress and negative emotions like anger can accelerate the aging process.
The challenges posed by aging are broad and can affect physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being:
- Physical Decline: As we age, we may experience reduced strength, flexibility, and endurance, making us more susceptible to conditions like osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases.
- Cognitive Changes: Aging is often associated with a gradual decline in processing speed, memory, and executive functions.
- Increased Vulnerability to Diseases: Aging heightens our vulnerability to chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders.
- Social and Emotional Challenges: Aging can bring about feelings of loneliness and loss.
By understanding the causes and challenges of aging, we can take proactive steps to promote healthy aging and improve our overall quality of life.
Anti-aging is a broad term used to describe any procedure or product that claims to slow down or reverse the effects of aging. In essence, it encompasses a wide range of efforts, practices, and strategies aimed at slowing down, reversing, or minimizing both the physical and psychological effects of aging, including scientific advancements, lifestyle modifications, skincare regimens, and medical interventions, all with the common goal of maintaining a youthful appearance, enhancing vitality, and promoting overall well-being as individuals grow older.
Anti-Aging Treatment to Restore Youth and Vitality
(Photo credit: astrogle.com)
Practicing Anti-Aging and Reaping the Benefits of Healthy Aging
While aging is a natural process, there are certain strategies, lifestyle choices, and interventions that can help slow down the aging process and promote healthy ageing.
- Skin Protection: Shielding the skin from sun damage through sunscreen can reduce the risk of skin cancer, premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and eye damage. A randomized trial studying the effects of sunscreen on skin aging found that the daily sunscreen users experienced 24% less skin aging compared to those who used sunscreen selectively.
- Healthy Diet: Maintaining a nutritious diet offers multiple benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved digestion, enhanced immune function, better mental health, and improved sleep quality. Antioxidant-rich foods are especially beneficial for counteracting oxidative stress, which is a key driver of aging as seen in a study on the Effects of Dietary Antioxidants on the Immune Function of Middle-aged Adults. (However, another study examining the Associations between Serum Folate Concentrations and Functional Disability in Older Adults suggests that antioxidants may not have an effect on physical function.)
- Caloric Restriction and Intermittent Fasting: These practices can lead to weight management, increased energy, improved skin health, and an overall higher quality of life. Caloric restriction involves reducing calorie intake without causing malnutrition and has been proven to extend lifespan in various organisms. Intermittent fasting has also shown potential health benefits.
- Physical Activity: Regular exercise, as highlighted in the article “Benefits of Exercise,” improves cardiovascular health, weight management, muscle strength, and bone health.
- Quality Sleep: Adequate sleep improves cognitive function, mood, immune system strength, physical health, and overall well-being. These advantages find support in articles like “A Good Night’s Sleep”, “Sleep Tips for Older Adults” and “Sleep and Aging: What’s Normal?”.
- Mental Stimulation: Engaging in cognitive activities such as reading, problem-solving, and learning new skills not only enhances cognitive function but also reduces the risk of cognitive decline, fosters creativity, and promotes emotional well-being. These activities effectively train your brain.
- Social Connections: Maintaining strong social bonds offers cognitive stimulation, longevity, and emotional well-being while lack of social connections can pose significant health risks.
- Avoiding Smoking and Limiting Alcohol: Quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption improve appearance, respiratory and cardiovascular health, and lower the risk of cancer. Smoking and excessive alcohol intake accelerate the aging process and have adverse health effects.
- Meditation: Mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation offer a wide range of benefits, including improved mental health, enhanced physical well-being, increased productivity and focus, better relationships, improved sleep quality, strengthened immune function, increased resilience, and an overall higher quality of life. Chronic stress can contribute to accelerated aging, but mindfulness meditation, and loving-kindness meditation can help alleviate its negative effects on the body and mind. Articles like “Is Stress Aging You Before Your Time?”, “Best Ways to Manage Stress” and “Mindfulness Meditation: A Research-Proven Way to Reduce Stress” provide valuable insights into managing stress effectively.
(Photo credit: omni-fitt)
Supporting Healthy Aging with the Buddha’s Teachings: Emotional Management and Meditation
While the concept of anti-aging and healthy aging may not be explicitly addressed in Buddhist teachings, certain principles and practices of Buddhism can be applied to support them. The Buddha emphasized the significance of the mind and recommended methods for cultivating, disciplining, and training it as one of the essential tools for leading a happy and successful life, benefiting oneself and others. Relevant sayings found in the Dhammapada, which means the Path of the Dhamma, include:
“All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner, chief, and they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with pure intentions, happiness will follow, like a shadow that never leaves one’s side; on the contrary, if one speaks or acts with evil intentions, suffering will follow, just as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that pull it along.”
“The mind is difficult to tame; it tends to wander and do as it pleases. It is beneficial to train the mind effectively since a well-trained mind brings happiness.”
“Trouble befalls those who heed the dictates of an untamed mind.”
“An undisciplined mind causes more harm than those who hate you or all your enemies, while a well-disciplined mind brings greater good than your mother, father, and all your family combined.”
(Even modern science highlights “The power of thought – One of the greatest riddles of science | DW Documentary”)
The Buddha also provided guidance on embracing change and recognizing its natural occurrence in the aging process. He metaphorically expressed, “Splendid royal chariots wear away, and the body too experiences old age.“
To overcome the fear of aging, we should engage in daily contemplation, acknowledging the inevitable truth that “I’m subject to decay. I cannot escape decay since all living beings are subject to aging.”
The Buddha’s final teachings emphasized the universal nature of change, stating that “all compound things are subject to change.“
As we acknowledge the inevitability of aging from the moment we are born, it becomes essential to prioritize our health and well-being. Simultaneously, we should reflect on the fact that aging is an unavoidable part of life. Embracing the natural signs of aging, such as changes in hair color, wrinkles, slower walking, and occasional illnesses that come with age, without distress or anxiety, is crucial. By letting go of these negative emotions, we can reduce a significant cause of aging – psychological stress.
The Role of Meditation (Mindfulness and Loving-kindness) in Promoting Healthy Aging
Although there are as many as 40 Buddhist meditation practices, we will only discuss two types: Anapanasati (Mindfulness Meditation), and Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation that involves cultivating feelings of love, kindness, and compassion towards oneself and others.
Summary of the Buddha’s words on benefits of meditation
The Buddha spoke about the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the MahaSatipatthana Sutta that, “Mindfulness is the singular and essential way for purifying beings, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, eradicating bodily pain and mental grief, and realizing Nibbana.” Additionally, in the Metta (Mettanisamsa) Sutta, the Buddha mentioned eleven benefits of loving-kindness meditation, such as improved sleep, being dear to human beings and animals, protection from harm, enhanced concentration, and a serene countenance.
Originally, the practice of meditation, particularly among the Buddha’s followers, aimed to achieve various benefits such as attaining Nibbana, developing psychic powers, and experiencing happiness in the present moment. Over time, meditation has also shown effectiveness in promoting improvements in health, for example, in prevention, reduction, and eradication of psychological stress.
Science-based benefits of meditation in dealing with psychological stress
Research on the role of meditation in stress reduction highlights that mindfulness meditation can lead to changes in brain structures related to stress regulation, emotional processing, and attentional control. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation decreases the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Moreover, loving-kindness meditation has been associated with positive effects on telomere length, which is a biological marker of aging. Research has shown that women with experience in loving-kindness meditation tend to have relatively longer telomeres compared to age-matched controls (quoting Hoge et al., 2013).
Given that aging is influenced by various factors, such as genetics, environment, lifestyle, and emotions, it is clear that stress, particularly oxidative stress, plays a significant role. Fortunately, mindfulness meditation offers a potential solution to counteract the effects of stress on the aging process as shown in the article by the American Psychological Association on “Mindfulness Meditation: A Research-Proven Way to Reduce Stress.” Although stress has been found to accelerate cellular aging, meditation has been shown to reduce stress levels effectively. By incorporating just 15 minutes of daily meditation into our lives, we can experience the benefits of increased telomerase production and lengthened telomeres, which can slow down the aging process at a cellular level.
How Meditation Slows Aging
(Photo credit: EOC Institute)
Additionally, meditation has been found to boost Glutathione levels by 41%, providing protection against oxidative stress and further slowing down the aging process. Basic breath meditation, a simple yet powerful mindfulness tactic, offers immediate stress reduction.
Moreover, scientific research has identified over 20+ health benefits of meditation, 18 scientifically-backed reasons to explore loving-kindness meditation, and the impact of meditation on healthy ageing – the current state of knowledge and a roadmap to future directions, which has profound effects on both health and happiness.
Incorporating meditation into our daily routine can have a transformative impact on our well-being, counteracting the detrimental effects of stress and potentially slowing down the aging process.
How Meditation Works in Healthy Aging – Preventing and Reducing Mental Stress
Psychological stress can arise from various significant sources, such as work-related stress, financial stress, relationship issues, traumatic events, chronic illness and health problems, and major life transitions.
Mindfulness meditation, a research-proven way to reduce stress works by dialing down the body’s response to stress. Researchers believe that the benefits of mindfulness are related to its ability to influence two different stress pathways in the brain, resulting in changes in brain structures and activity in regions associated with attention and emotion regulation. By lowering the stress response, mindfulness meditation may have downstream effects throughout the body, including improvements in the immune system and other health problems exacerbated by chronic stress.
In a review of meditation studies, psychology researchers found strong evidence that people who received Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) were less likely to react with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions in times of stress. Additionally, there was moderate evidence that individuals who participated in MBCT or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) were better able to focus on the present moment, experience less worrying, and reduce repetitive negative thinking.
Another form of meditation that proves effective in reducing anxiety and preventing psychological stress is Loving-kindness Meditation. This practice focuses on developing feelings of love, compassion, and kindness towards oneself and others. A systematic review and meta-analysis on the Effects of Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation on Anxiety showed positive results. Furthermore, Loving-kindness Meditation has been found to increase social connectedness, acting as a buffer against the stress of social evaluation or exclusion, as demonstrated in an Analogue Study of Loving-Kindness Meditation.
Integrating mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation into daily life can provide older individuals significant advantages in their pursuit of healthy aging, as it helps alleviate mental stress and fosters overall well-being.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation for Well-being
Mindfulness Meditation involves intentional focus on the present moment with non-judgmental awareness, leading to improved self-awareness, emotional regulation, and skillful responses to life’s challenges. To practice mindfulness meditation:
- Find a quiet and calm space where you can sit comfortably. You can choose to close your eyes or keep them focused gently on a point in front of you.
- Focus on your breath and take deep breaths to relax your body and mind.
- Bring your attention to the sensation of your breath, observing the inhalation and exhalation without judgment.
- For effectiveness, engage in regular daily practice, starting with shorter sessions of five minutes and gradually increasing duration, while also integrating mindfulness into daily activities. Consistent practice and the integration of mindfulness into daily life enhance its benefits.
For detailed mindfulness meditation, you may read the ebook “Buddhadhamma, the Laws of Nature and Their Benefits to Life” by Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto, pp. 1765-1887.
Loving-Kindness Meditation, also known as metta meditation, involves cultivating feelings of love, kindness, and compassion towards oneself and others. It can have positive effects on psychological well-being, including reducing stress. Here is a summary of the steps involved in practicing loving-kindness meditation:
- Settle into a comfortable position: Find a quiet and calm space where you can sit comfortably. You can choose to close your eyes or keep them softly focused.
- Focus on your breath: Take a few deep breaths to relax your body and mind.
- Generate feelings of loving-kindness towards yourself: Repeat positive affirmations or phrases that reflect love and kindness towards yourself. Examples include “May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.” Allow yourself to genuinely feel the emotions associated with these phrases.
- Expand to Loved Ones: Shift your focus to loved ones, such as family members or close friends. Extend the loving-kindness phrases to them, visualizing them in your mind’s eye. Repeat phrases like, “May [name] be happy. May [name] be safe. May [name] be healthy. May [name] live with ease.”
- Cultivate Compassion for Neutral People: Extend loving-kindness to neutral individuals, such as acquaintances or strangers. Imagine them in your mind and offer them the same well-wishes: “May [name] be happy. May [name] be safe. May [name] be healthy. May [name] live with ease.”
- Embrace All Beings: Gradually expand your circle of compassion to encompass all beings. Include people you find challenging or have conflicts with, and eventually extend your loving-kindness to all living beings without exception. Repeat the phrases: “May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe. May all beings be healthy. May all beings live with ease.”
- Maintain Mindfulness and Openness: Throughout the practice, stay aware of any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the loving-kindness phrases and the intention behind them.
- End the meditation: After a suitable period of time (usually 10-20 minutes), gradually bring the meditation to a close. As you conclude the meditation, take a moment to appreciate the positive feelings you have generated. Bring your attention back to your breath and gradually transition back to your daily activities.
By regularly practicing both mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation, individuals can develop greater empathy, compassion, and resilience, which can contribute to stress reduction and improved psychological well-being.
For detailed mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, you may read the ebook “Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice” by Paravahera Vajiranana Mahathera and Allan R. Bomhard.
Additionally, incorporating mindfulness and loving-kindness into everyday life can further enhance the positive effects of these practices, leading to healthier aging and a greater sense of well-being.
Applying Loving-Kindness Meditation in Everyday Life
In addition to a formal loving-kindness meditation session, we can also integrate it into our daily interactions and thoughts. For example, when we see or look at someone, we can extend heartfelt wishes for their happiness and prosperity, hoping that, “they (he or shet) may be happy, prosperous, and free from suffering.” We can cultivate a genuine willingness to help them according to our capacity whenever they may need support, with the intention of providing assistance in the best possible way.
By incorporating these loving and compassionate thoughts into our daily lives, we foster a positive and caring mindset that can positively influence our relationships and interactions with others. This practice not only benefits the recipients of our goodwill but also contributes to our own sense of inner peace and well-being. It reminds us of the interconnectedness of all beings and the potential impact of our actions on the world around us. Through these small acts of loving-kindness, we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of others and create a more harmonious and compassionate society.
Optimal Duration of Meditation Sessions
The ideal duration of meditation sessions varies depending on individual preferences and goals. Different sources offer insights into the recommended meditation times:
According to a study mentioned on verywellmind.com, the article on Benefits of Meditation for Stress Management suggests that meditating for 5 minutes, 6 times per week can be more beneficial than meditating for 30 minutes once a week.
The article on How to Practice Basic Meditation for Stress Management also advises beginners to start with short sessions of 5 minutes and gradually increase to 10 or 15 minutes until they feel comfortable meditating for 30-minute sessions, which is considered an ideal duration.
Mindfulness-based clinical interventions like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), recommended by Manhattan CBT, typically suggest practicing meditation for 40-45 minutes per day.
For beginners, starting with at least 5 minutes of meditation per day is recommended. This allows newcomers to get accustomed to the practice and commit to it without feeling overwhelmed. Gradually increasing the duration over time helps reduce stress levels and makes meditation more manageable for beginners.
A Take-home message
In conclusion, we should take holistic anti-aging practices to promote overall well-being and healthy aging by addressing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life. These approaches can enhance vitality, maintain a youthful appearance, and improve overall quality of life as we age. Some key holistic approaches may include following a healthy diet rich in nutrients and antioxidants, engaging in regular exercise to support muscle and cardiovascular health, getting adequate restorative sleep, staying well-hydrated, using natural skincare products, fostering social connections, stimulating the mind through cognitive activities, practicing emotional awareness, avoiding harmful substances, considering supplements and herbs with potential anti-aging effects under professional guidance, engaging in mind-body practices, and nurturing spiritual well-being, and practicing stress reduction techniques like meditation as well as following the Buddha’s advice on accepting the eventual inevitability of old age, which empower us to let go of regrets and psychological stress about the future and allow us to find peace and contentment in the here and now. By integrating these practices into our daily lives, we can navigate the challenges of aging with greater equanimity and grace.
May all beings, especially older persons, enjoy healthy aging and more happiness.
 In this article, the terms ‘Anti-Aging’ and ‘Healthy Aging’ are closely related and mutually supportive.
 Glutathione is an antioxidant in plants, animals, fungi, and some bacteria and archaea. It is capable of preventing damage to important cellular components caused by sources such as reactive oxygen species, free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals.
 All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner in the sense that mind is the most dominant and is the cause of the other three mental phenomena: (1) feeling; (2) perception; and (3) predisposing mental formations or mental concomitants. These three have mind or consciousness as their precursor because, although they arise simultaneously with mind, they cannot arise if mind does not arise.
 “Mind as their chief,” and “mind-made” here mean intention or volition. In those who are deluded worldlings, volition leads to the performance of volitional actions, both good and evil. This volition and the resultant actions constitute kamma, and kamma always follows one to produce results.
 A significant cause of aging is stress. Stress can be closely related to sorrow and lamentation in this context. While sorrow and lamentation often involve feelings of sadness, grief, or distress, stress is a broader term that encompasses a range of physical, mental, and emotional responses to various factors, including challenging circumstances, pressure, or demands. Sorrow and lamentation can contribute to stress as they can be emotionally taxing experiences. When people experience sorrow or lamentation, they may also experience stress as a result of the emotional burden they carry. While they can be interconnected, they are distinct experiences that may influence and impact each other.
 Oxidative stress is essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants.
 Elissa S. Epel et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress.
 Nirodhi N. Dasanayaka et al. The effects of meditation on length of telomeres in healthy individuals: a systematic review
 Sanchari Sinha et al. Improvement of Glutathione and Total Antioxidant Status with Yoga.
Author: Paitoon Songkaeo, Ph.D.
29 September 2023 (B.E. 2566)