As we move through the different stages of life, the challenges we face and the tools we have at our disposal to deal with them change. Speaking generally, we may in our youth feel the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to build a life for ourselves, but benefit from a sense of possibility and expectation. In mid-life, we may have gained security and the comfort of long-lasting loving relationships, but also need to juggle more important responsibilities and frequent stress. And as we get older, looking after our health often becomes the greatest priority.

Throughout all the difficulties we face as we journey between every season of life, meditation is a fantastic support for our mental and physical wellbeing, and it can be used by people of any age to reduce stress, improve sleep and build self-esteem.

Keeping well at any age

One way to keep on track with meeting our health goals is to eat healthily, exercise regularly, get enough sleep every night (when possible) and cut down on alcohol. But getting the basics covered - which can be harder than it should be in our busy, stressful modern world - can be made easier by making meditation part of our routine.

Meditation tackles the root causes (such as chronic stress, unresolved trauma and feelings of anxiety) which often drive much of our less-than-ideal behaviour, while also working in an extremely powerful way with our nervous system to support our overall health.

Whether we are young, middle aged or in a more senior age bracket, the stress relief provided by meditation is not only beneficial for common illnesses such as anxiety and depression, it can also help with that elusive quest for calm which is so hard to find for people of any age group.

Meditation for the young

We tend to assume that, as-yet-unaffected by the craziness of life with kids, mortgages and demanding careers, young people are pretty carefree. However, youngsters can gain just as much from meditation as anyone else - in fact, by starting the habit early, the benefits can be even more profound.

The young peoples’ mental health charity Young Minds unveiled some interesting findings in its recent Amplified report. Of the young people surveyed, a huge 84% of respondents agree that looking after their mental health will strongly support them in life. An even higher figure – 87% - of young people want to put themselves in the driver’s seat, believing that they have an important role to play in looking after their own mental health.

Today, children and young adults are becoming ever more aware of how important mental health is, and are increasingly cognizant of the fact that we need to look after both physical and mental health in order to achieve a full sense of wellbeing. Meditation gives them a tool with which they can take care of themselves, empowering them to prioritise their mental wellbeing in an accessible and easy-to-practice way.

Meditation in midlife

Mid-life is usually the time where we fully intellectualise that we are getting older, with a few new wrinkles, increasingly creaky knees and ever-worsening hangovers there to remind us that time is moving forward. While this can result for some in a mid-life crisis, in reality the wisdom and confidence that comes with age should be celebrated - and when we use meditation we can hold back some of the downsides and revel in the advantages that advancing years can bring.

It’s theorised that one major aspect of ageing lies in repeating DNA motifs which act as a protective cap to shield our chromosomes, known as “telomeres”. Discovered by marine scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, (who also found that an enzyme called telomerase can protect and rebuild the telomeres and ultimately won a Nobel prize for her work), telomeres will wear down after dividing, and dwindle over time. Eventually, when they get too short, our cells start functioning poorly and they lose their ability to divide. This phenomenon is now recognized as a key aspect of physical ageing.

Where meditation comes in to this relates to work carried out by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel, who wanted to know more about the impact of chronic stress on our bodies. Recruiting study subjects facing profound life challenges, researchers discovered that the more stressed people reported being, the shorter their telomeres, and the lower their levels of telomerase. For some acutely stressed people, their physiology indicated a whole extra decade of ageing, and a strong link was established between oxidative stress and inflammation (results of psychological stress) and the erosion of youth-protecting telomeres.

Alongside general healthy living and staying social with friends and family, meditation has an extremely powerful impact on our stress response because it doesn’t rely on us trying to ‘think’ our way out of stress. Instead, meditation calms our nervous system in an effortless and unconscious way, by taking us out of the “sympathetic nervous system” (SNS) and into the “parasympathetic nervous system” (PNS) - which encourages a state known as rest and repair.

In this state, the physical signs of stress - from high levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, to increased heart rate and tightness of chest - start to subside, and our bodies start to function as they should. As meditation has no side effects and its stress-busting effects are both entirely natural and cumulative over time, it is probably one of the safest and most effective ways to deal with chronic stress, and avoid the impacts of premature ageing that it can bring.

Meditation as an elder

Even people in their golden years who have never meditated before can feel the many benefits of this practice, and it really is never too late to start. For instance, meditation has been associated with bolstering areas of the brain which can be subject to “cortical thinning” as people age (long-term meditators, such as Buddhist monks, have particularly impressive brains in their old age). Group meditation can also be a great way to connect deeply with others, which is important in an age group where loneliness is a common issue.

By making us less reactive, less stressed and helping us to heal the impact of past traumas on our nervous system, meditation can also help us be open to new possibilities and ready to enjoy life. A big part of ageing gracefully is accepting that there is no magic bullet to bring back our youth, but there is fun and happiness to be found at every stage of life, and plenty of plus sides to seeing those later years play out.

With meditation, we can remain naturally optimistic and underpin our physical and mental health with a practice that has been linked to relief from depression, improved heart health and boosted brain function. Taken together, all this adds up to a healthy and happy life, whether we are just setting out on the adventure or looking back fondly over the years gone by.

Author's Bio: 

Will Williams is a leading meditation teacher and the founder of London meditation center Beeja meditation. In his coaching work, Will has worked with Google, Spotify, Sony, Virgin, Apple and many more, and his first book, The Effortless Mind, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.