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Fighting Cognitive Decline Part 3 – Exploring Mindfulness

In this final installment on fighting cognitive decline, we will look into the term mindfulness. How can mindfulness be practiced to produce positive effects in the short term that will have long-term benefits of delaying cognitive decline?

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To recap, to fight cognitive decline we need tools.  I am proposing developing the following three forms of active weapons.  Fight cognitive decline with The Three E’s:

1.         Exercising

2.         Eating right = Mediterranean Diet

3.         Exploring mindfulness

In the first article on cognitive decline, we looked at exercising, specifically running and yoga, to fight against this disease’s attack on the brain.  Then, we added another layer of defense: eating right, specifically focusing on the often talked about, Mediterranean Diet.  Today, we will learn about the term mindfulness and all the positive benefits, plus ways to implement this practice. 

To recap, the Mayo Clinic defines cognitive decline within the context of a more serious diagnosis. “Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia.  It can involve problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that are greater than normal age-related changes.”  Symptoms can also include a decreased ability to maintain focus and decreased ability to problem solve.  In some cases, symptoms can progress into more serious conditions, such as dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, MCI, “causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the individuals experiencing them or to other people, but the changes are not severe enough to interfere with daily life or independent function.”  

What is mindfulness?  Where did this term come from and why do we hear about it so much today? Mindfulness means focusing on a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing viewpoint.  Mindfulness also involves acceptance.  Pay attention to thoughts and feelings, but without judging them.  And for me this means, we don’t have to do this if it is not working.  In the moment, if I feel I need to get something done for my writing or off my to-do list, then it is more beneficial for me to recognize that this is not the time for pushing away these thoughts.  I can come back to this practice of mindfulness when I am finished with whatever is bothering me.  That is mindfulness in action. 

The best way that I find to practice mindfulness is during a yoga class.  When I practice mindfulness during yoga class, I do find stopping myself from rehashing of the past or circular thinking about the future to be worthwhile.  In addition, it is beneficial to focus on an intention for the class.  This can be anything and it is more productive for me to combine the physical movements of yoga with this focused, present-minded thinking.

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation.  There is also Christian-based yoga and mindfulness meditation.  A secular practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream in recent years.  This is due in part to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.  He started the MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979.  Since then, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular, which has inspired adaptions of  the MBSR model for schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and beyond.”[i]  I would hope that the benefits would inspire law firms, bar associations, and other legal employers to adopt mindfulness or yoga classes as a benefit offered to employees.

What does practicing mindfulness involve? 

  • Paying close attention to your breathing.  This is especially important when feeling intense anger or shock or on the opposite side happiness or playfulness.
  • Take notice at least three times a day of a moment – anything from brushing your teeth to hugging your child to making dinner – note the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily go by without reaching your full awareness.
  • Stop and name your emotions when you are going through a negative thought pattern.  Name it out loud or tell someone what you are feeling.  Name it to tame it.  
  • Feel physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin while you wash your hands to the way your body feels sitting in the car.
  • Find “micro-moments” throughout the day to reset your focus and sense of purpose.”[ii]

One way to incorporate these components of mindfulness into your day is to start a mindfulness practice of breathing exercises.  Stress can cause shallow breathing.  Studies have shown that breathing practices “can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.”[iii]  What is fascinating is that employers could utilize some of this scientific research as the foundation for an employee wellness program specifically aimed at decreasing employee stress, anxiety, and increasing immune system function.  This is a win-win for both employer and employee.  The employee receives benefits physically and mentally making her more likely to be a productive, healthy member of the workforce.  The employer benefits from increased productivity, engagement, and attendance from healthier, more productive employees.  Specifically, if an employee were able to take ten minutes twice a work day and do a breathing exercise, a recent study shows that the individual will have a boost to her immune system.[iv]

A practice of mindfulness using breathing exercise can be the following:  Take five minutes and set your phone timer to give your mind freedom not to think about the time.  This may be when you wake up, while taking a shower, while driving or commuting, while moving through yoga sun salutations or at the end of the day before you turn out your light.  Begin by just noticing your breathing.  Do not change your breath just notice it maybe five or six inhalations and exhalations.  Then start taking deeper breaths.   Inhale in 1, 2, 3, 4, stop, then  breath in more 1, 2, 3, 4, hold 1 second, then exhale out through your mouth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then repeat.  This double inhale will feel weird at first or it can take a few tries before getting it down, but it will get easier.  It is amazingly relaxing to breathe this way.  Try doing this until your timer goes off.   Five minutes once a day at the same time of day for seven days.  See if you can build this habit.  If you can, then add to it.  Add an extra minute to six minutes.   Hopefully you can get to ten minutes per day and then maybe build to ten minutes twice a day to achieve benefits like the immune system boost described in the study. 

Overall, mindfulness, eating right and following a Mediterranean diet, as well as exercising, can all benefit you in the present day to fight cognitive decline.  This three-part series addressed all three weapons in fighting cognitive decline.  This topic is important to all people regardless of age because cognitive decline will happen to all of us and it is never too early to start fighting against it. 

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


[i] “Mindfulness: Defined.” The Greater Good Magazine published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.  Available at:  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

[ii]   Id. at “Mindfulness: Defined – Cultivating a Practice.”

[iii] Alderman, Lesley.  “Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing.” The New York Times. November 9, 2016.  Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/well/mind/breathe-exhale-repeat-the-benefits-of-controlled-breathing.html

[iv]   “Controlled breathing may also affect the immune system. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. The subjects’ saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation and stress. The findings were published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August (2019).”  “Mindfulness: Defined.  What is Mindfulness?” The Greater Good Magazine published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.  Available at:  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

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