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The Mind-Body Connection in Older Age

A Q&A with ABC’s Dan Harris and our own HSL researcher about the relationship between the physical and mental well-being
The Mind-Body Connection in Older Age

In 2004, ABC News journalist Dan Harris experienced a panic attack while reading the news on Good Morning America. This led him down a path of exploring the connection between our mind and our bodies, ultimately finding meditation as an answer to quieting his “internal narrator.” Dan wrote about his journey in the best-selling book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Works – a True Story.

Dan will join us on October 28 at EngAGE, a fundraising event hosted by Hebrew SeniorLife to cue the conversation on how we think about aging. We’ll explore the impact of aging on the mind-body connection, an area of focus for researchers at HSL’s Institute for Aging Research.

Also speaking at EngAGE will be celebrity nutritionist Keri Glassman, best-selling author Mitch Albom, humorist and journalist Mo Rocca, and HSL experts. We invite you to follow our EngAGE conversations through social media on the day of the event by searching on Twitter for #HSLEngAGE.

I asked Dan a few questions about his experience, and spoke with HSL Institute for Aging Research scientist Brad Manor, Ph.D. about how cognitive and physical function changes as we age. Brad will also be speaking at EngAGE.

Dan, let’s talk about your “internal narrator,” the voice you sought to quiet when you set on your journey to improve happiness and lower stress. Did you find that this voice changes as you age? Have you spoken with any seniors about their own “internal narrators” and how they’ve changed over time?

Dan Harris: This is very idiosyncratic, I would imagine. My internal narrator has gotten much less nasty over time – but I don’t know if that would have been the case were it not for meditation.

The following anecdote is not scientific, but my (now deceased) grandfather was a pretty grouchy dude until something changed for him in his 80s. By the end of his life, he was maintaining an active email and Twitter relationship with his grandchildren.

Can you talk about the correlation you noticed in your own life between the physical and the mental? What’s the relationship between these two for you?

Dan: Clichés become cliché for a reason – because they’re generally true. Such is the case with the whole “mind-body connection” thing. We know from science that the condition of your body can impact your mental state, and vice versa. We know this, too, from our own lives. How many times has your stomach rumbled or fluttered because your mind is experiencing nervousness?

In my case, the most prominent – and humiliating – example of the mind-body connection was when I had a panic attack on live television. As a consequence of my thoughts, my body revolted: heart racing, palms sweating, lungs seizing up. It sucked.

What advice can you give older adults who may struggle incorporating a new routine, however small, into their lives?

Dan: If you’ve made it this far, you are tough; you are a survivor. Starting a new habit is not easy, but you can do it. For meditation, I recommend beginning with five to ten minutes a day. You are absolutely up to the challenge – and I promise it will be worth your time.

Your book is about ways you’ve controlled stress in your own life and increased your happiness through meditation. Tai Chi is often described as meditation in motion. Research shows that Tai Chi can improve balance and reduce falls in addition to enhancing mental function. Have you explored more physical ways to reduce stress in addition to meditation?

Dan: I have not – but, from what I’ve heard, Tai Chi and yoga can be great for people. I sometimes do “walking meditation,” which simply involves pacing very slowly back and forth in a quiet room, while paying close attention to the sensations of your movements. You look totally crazy doing it, but it’s a good practice.

Brad, what is the mind-body effect of Tai Chi and how does it help older people?

Brad Manor: Our daily lives often require us to do physical and mental tasks at the same time, like standing and reading or walking and talking. As we get older, this type of mind-body “dual tasking” becomes more difficult and as a result, often interferes with our balance and may even lead to a fall. We’ve demonstrated that Tai Chi can improve mind-body dual tasking, in addition to other important health outcomes like heart function, sleep, and stress.

How is Tai Chi different from other practices?

Brad: Tai Chi is an ancient form of Chinese martial arts. As a therapeutic intervention, it focuses on the quality, feel, and purpose of the involved movements – similar to what Dan experiences in his walking meditation. Tai Chi targets both the physical and mental fundamentals in mobility, which is why we believe it has a positive effect on balance in elderly adults.

What are the next steps in your Tai Chi research?

Brad: Based on the pilot studies of Tai Chi in two Hebrew SeniorLife independent living communities, we secured a large NIH grant to study Tai Chi in subsidized housing throughout Boston. Our goal is to look at not just balance and cognitive outcomes, but also whether Tai Chi can reduce the need for doctor’s visits and therefore health care costs. Our goal is to increase the use and acceptance of Tai Chi as a successful intervention to improve balance and reduce falls, and hopefully to make it reimbursable by insurance.

Dan Harris is co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America. In addition, he files reports for World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, ABC News Digital and ABC News Radio. He is the recipient of an Edward R. Murrow Award and Emmy Award. Dan’s book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works – a True Story was published in March 2014 and appeared at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Brad Manor, Ph.D.  is the Director of the Mobility and Brain Function Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research and an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. His research focuses on ways to alleviate the burden of balance decline that often accompanies biological aging. Dr. Manor received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University a completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.

Terri Febo Robinson's picture

About the Blogger

Development Communications Manager

Terri Febo Robinson is Development Communications Manager at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she focuses on communications that help donors understand how their philanthropy has the power to redefine aging. Terri has committed her career to mission-driven organizations, with experience with communications, marketing, media relations, writing, digital communications, and direct response fundraising. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Boston University.

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