Episode 6: What if your mindset could change your mind on aging?

Jan. 10, 2024 | 28 mins

Join our host Jennifer Botterill as she chats with Dr. Alexandra Fiocco, professor of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University, about mindfulness and its connection to living a better long-term life, both physically and mentally.

Episode transcript

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You're listening to the Beyond the Age podcast series.

Jennifer Botterill

Hi, and welcome to Beyond Age, a Manulife exclusive podcast. Manulife cares about the physical, mental and financial well-being of Canadians, and during this podcast series, we chat with industry experts to uncover the truth about holistic health and aging to keep you living healthier for longer, no matter your age. I'm your host, Jennifer Botterill. And today I'm joined by Dr. Alexandra Fiocco, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University and the director of the Stress and Healthy Aging Research Lab from Toronto, Ontario.

We'll be discussing mindset and if you can change your mind on aging. Welcome, Dr. Fiocco

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Thank you very much for the introduction, Jennifer. Really happy to be here.

Jennifer Botterill

Oh, good. Well, we're honored to have you join us today. So, thank you. And to get us started, may you please tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got into this field?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Certainly. So, as you said, I am a professor in Department of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University. And you know, my trajectory in academia hasn't necessarily been a linear one. So, my initial interest was really in understanding stress and stress related health outcomes. So early on in my academic training, I worked more with depression and anxiety as outcomes of interest.

And then as I moved into my graduate training, my Nonna was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia. And with this experience, I developed an interest in understanding this variability within the aging population. Now, in terms of mindfulness, I would say that this really came from my personal interest with contemplative studies and practices. And it really felt like a natural integration of mindfulness within my research platform that initially was really looking at the association between stress and cognitive aging.

So I guess that sort of brings all of these sort of three elements together that describes the work that I do.

Jennifer Botterill

Yes, Great. And can you tell us a little more in terms of how do we properly define what mindfulness really means?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Yes. So, there are a few floating definitions out there. The one that I usually use is that mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment with an open and accepting attitude. Meditation is one formal way in which we can actually develop mindfulness. And I see mindfulness as a skill. Some people will say it is a trait perhaps that we are inherently born with, but it is a skill that we can develop over time with intention.

Jennifer Botterill

Yes. Good for all of us to know. And I think that's something that I'm sure many of us in the world are trying to incorporate more in our lives, in our careers. And so now that we're clear on what mindfulness means, would you say there's a link between mindfulness and overall health?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

The quick answer would be yes.

Jennifer Botterill

Yes.

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

I would definitely say that there is a link between mindfulness and health. There's quite a large body of research that has been conducted over the last 20 years or more than 20 years now, and much of the research started by investigating Buddhist monks. So, mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is grounded in Buddhist teachings. And so, what was found was that Buddhist monks tended to score higher on scores of compassion and well-being, and also they found that their brains looked different compared to novices who do not meditate.

And so following that body of research, then the question was, okay, well, can we train mindfulness in novices? And what they did find that, yes, we can. A lot of this work started with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, work as well as Richie Davidson showing that training mindfulness over eight weeks can actually improve our psychosocial well-being, and it could also change the brain.

Generally, what has been shown is that mindfulness may improve or decrease perceptions of chronic stress. It can decrease depression, symptoms of anxiety. It could also improve sleep problems or feelings of fatigue as well. There's some research to suggest that it could support cognitive performance as well. In terms of what's driving those associations, there's still quite a bit of research that needs to be done to really understand the mechanism.

But in terms of what's going on under the hood biologically, there is research to show that mindfulness practice can actually change the brain. And this is true for any kind of behavior, really. We know that experience changes the brain. And so, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to change the brain. It's been associated with increased connectivity in the brain.

For example, connectivity between the amygdala, which is our fear center of the brain and the prefrontal cortex, which is sort of this part of the brain that's necessary for higher order thinking and planning. It's also been associated with volume of the hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain that's important for learning and memory and is also involved in our stress sensitive systems.

So what we do see is that experience changes the brain. Mindfulness training can actually enhance our neural network. And this may be why we are seeing some of these psychosocial, social and behavioral improvements following mindfulness training. Now, the exact ingredient to the program, you know, what is it about mindfulness that's improving brain function and these psychosocial outcomes that is still less clear.

And that's where we need more research.

Jennifer Botterill

So tremendous potential benefits. And to think about yes how we can train and continue to learn and evolve. And if we think about our mental and physical health, how much of that can we influence with our mindset? And also, are there ways that we can reverse negative health effects that can be caused by mindset?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

So, in the context of mindset, if we kind of go on to the literature, there's actually research on mindset that specifically focuses on mindset. And often what you'll hear is a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. And, you know, I would see this more as a continuum between fixed and growth. And your mindset might differ depending on perhaps a certain domain, like you might be more fixed rather than growth when it comes to your career or if it comes to, for example, exercise, perhaps you're more of a growth mindset type of person.

So, we kind of, you know, move along this continuum. I would say now a fixed mindset would be one that assumes that there is nothing that we can do to develop a skill or to improve, for example, our health, our mental, our physical or spiritual wellness. That would be a fixed mindset. It would seem that there's really nothing that we can do, and this does have profound negative effects on someone's wellness well-being.

And so what we do want to do and we do this in the context of mindfulness and mindfulness training, is that we try to change our perspectives in particular the perspectives that perhaps are not very helpful or conducive to wellness. And part of this is the mindset. Part of this is understanding that we come in or we come to particular situations with assumptions.

Perhaps that assumption is, for example, if we're thinking about aging, is that, oh, well, I'm too old to do that. I'm too old to learn something new. Well, that in itself is a fixed mindset and that in itself can limit an individual and what they choose to do in their life to move forward.

Jennifer Botterill

Absolutely. And in your experiences, have you found that specific types of mindfulness practices seem to be more effective than others at keeping our bodies healthy?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

So, in terms of the different forms of mindfulness practices, I wouldn't say that one is better than the other. Actually, what I encourage my participants to do is to find which practices resonate with them the most. Because of the practice resonates with you, then you're more likely to practice it. Right. And what's important is that we are engaging in practice every single day.

If you want to develop a skill such as mindfulness, you know, it's like any other skill. You have to do it every day if you want to be a skilled pianist, you have to play the piano every day. It's the same thing with mindfulness. It is a skill that we develop. And so really the form of the practice isn't necessarily the most important piece.

It's the fact that we're doing it with intention as well.

Jennifer Botterill

So, can I ask if you could expand a little further on that? What about time frame? I think everybody can possibly relate to days that are busy in their lives, in their careers. So, what type of commitment do you recommend for people to focus on their practice? Is it a small amount of time? Clearly, consistency is important. But again, what's your suggestion for time commitment?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

My suggestion is always to start with whatever's available to start where you are. It's an interesting question, actually, because if I think about the manualized MBSR programs so Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, this was an eight-week program that was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. It's based on Buddhist teachings, but it was really created so that it was palatable to Westerners.

And, you know, I would say that the whole practice suggested 45 minutes of practice every single day. And since then, I would say, you know, going through formal training now, the assumption is that the practice is 30 minutes every day. The issue that I have with stating that you have to practice 30 minutes every day is that I feel that it's already sort of creating a barrier for individuals.

30 minutes can be a very tall order for many people. And so, I always suggest, you know, start with what you can. So, if 5 minutes is really all that you can commit to a practice, then do 5 minutes. But do 5 minutes every day.

Jennifer Botterill

One more question on that front. Do you feel like people start to see results pretty quickly if they find that commitment? Do you feel like people start to notice and to feel the benefits pretty quickly?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

I say depends on the individual. It's really hard to say. It really does depend on the individual. But you do sort of hear these anecdotal pieces that show up where, you know, participants are noticing that. And whenever I use the term participant, I just meet people who have, you know, registered for a program, not necessarily in the context of research, although usually I do run these groups in the context of research, but generally, you know, participants will start noticing.

And that's the key. That's where we start with is just noticing, noticing what shows up and noticing your habitual behaviors, which we call automatic pilot and then just bring awareness to what are the experiences that we're having in terms of physical sensations, emotional, you know, information that's showing up or even the thoughts that are showing up. And so, people will notice, perhaps over time, more calm in the body.

They might recognize that they are less reactive than they usually are to their environment, or they will notice when there is a moment missed. So that's another point of discussion that I always love to have with participants is okay, like please share your moments of mindfulness. So perhaps, you know, recognizing something new on your daily walk or moments missed.

So perhaps you were reactive in a particular interaction, but then you realize after the fact, Oh wow, I was really reactive. Okay, well, let's think about that a little more, because that's new as well, recognizing even after the fact that I probably could have done X, Y, Z differently. That is part of the practice and that is part of the process of developing the skill.

Jennifer Botterill

Yes, absolutely. And for all of us to of it's that idea of being calm and less reactive can be so applicable in many fields and many environments, so relevant. So, can we talk a little bit about aging? It's a topic that you've been very dedicated to. So how important is it to have a positive mindset when it comes to aging?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Well, I would say that it's very important as it is to have a positive mindset, you know, regarding a lot of, you know, experiences in our life. I mean, aging is a process that we all experience. I once saw a button or a saying that said aging is the most popular thing in the world. We're all doing it.

It really is. We are all aging. We age from the moment we're born, but for some reason we consider the first 20 years as development. After that, it's all aging in decline. The beliefs that we have about aging will impact our wellness, will impact the activities that we engage in, which can either enhance our wellbeing or even diminish our well-being over time.

So, the mindset and our beliefs about aging are linked to our survival and how well we live. You know, over the course of our later years.

Jennifer Botterill

Mm hmm. And so, you mentioned sort of the two different directions that you could take in terms of your perspective and your outlook. So, if someone did have a negative outlook on aging, how could that actually affect that person's health in a negative way?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

There's quite a bit of research to show that the negative aging stereotypes that we may hold can negatively impact our health. Having a negative perspective about aging is not uncommon. It's something that is sort of ingrained in our society, unfortunately. And there are a lot of ageist sentiments that, you know, we learn these things from when we're children, and many of us internalize these attitudes and beliefs as fact.

Internalization of aging stereotypes is associated with lower survival. So, you know, we're more likely to die early. It's also associated with greater risk for cognitive impairment, greater risk for functional mobility issues, and also lower quality of life and life satisfaction. So, if we feel if we believe that aging is all about decline, that aging is automatically associated with physical decline, cognitive decline, this will actually impact our physical health and our cognitive health later on.

So having a negative outlook in the context of aging can have serious detrimental effects on our life and on our wellness moving forward.

Jennifer Botterill

Mm hmm. Yes. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back after this message.

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Jennifer Botterill

Welcome back to Beyond Age. So, Dr. Fiocco, a term that we often hear, and you've referred to is ageism. Me Please share with our listeners what is ageism exactly?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Yeah. So ageism, it's a prejudice or a discrimination against a particular age group. Usually ageism, it refers to these beliefs against older adults. But it's important also to know that we could be just against younger adults as well. These are false beliefs that we have about a particular group based on their age. In the context of aging, again, is the notion that as we get older, we become less useful to society, that we become weaker, that we lose our cognitive capacity, you know, that we're physically no longer attractive.

I think that's a huge aging stereotype that really does influence our attitudes and behaviors in relation to the older adult subpopulation. What I find really fascinating about ageism is that, you know, there are many isms in this world, and this is one form of prejudice where we are prejudiced against our future selves. And so, it is so self-harming.

I mean, I know a lot of people just do not realize how harmful it can be, because as I said before, you know, if you've internalized these ageist beliefs, it really does influence your behavior. And if you are not engaging in physical activity because you think, oh, I'm too old for that, well, this is going to dramatically impact your life.

Jennifer Botterill

Mm hmm. So that's one example of the physical activity. What else would you recommend for individuals to counter or to combat the ageism factor?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Yeah, because we're really surrounded by it. I think it's just something that really is rampant in our society. So, you see this term anti-aging everywhere. And it really does drive me crazy. It's anti something. You could be anti-violence, you know, but you cannot be anti-aging. This is a process that we are all engaging in. And if you are resisting it, well, how can you resist something that's going to happen no matter what?

Right. So, you are creating suffering by resisting a process that is completely natural that we're all going through. Another piece is cognitive functioning. So, as we get older, there are some people who start to be more aware of whether they are forgetting things or not. I've been forgetting things for years. I will forget things. I don't attribute it to aging.

I attribute it to the fact that I am extremely busy, that I am often multitasking. But the thing is that because of the aging stereotype of as we get older, we're going to lose our cognitive facilities. Well, I'm going to start worrying a little more, thinking, oh my God, am I developing dementia if I forget something? Am I saying, oh, it must be a senior moment, right?

I think about the language that we're using, right? We're blaming aging on my forgetfulness when perhaps I'm just really tired or I never encoded the information to begin with. I never learn the information to begin with because I wasn't paying attention. We can see it shows up in that way as well. If we have this notion of as we get older, my cognition is going to decline and there's nothing I can do about it, well then, you're less likely to stay curious.

You're less likely to maybe sign up for a class where you can learn something new. You're less likely to engage in cognitively stimulating activities which are important to support our brain health.

Jennifer Botterill

So great suggestions for individuals. And then you mentioned about society. So, what changes would you like to see society adopt to help combat ageism that seems to be so present?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

I mean, that's a really big question. We do live in somewhat of an ageist society. So, this anti-aging term is just thrown around. We see clinics, we see, you know, ads on television and the anti-aging industry, they make billions of dollars, you know, feeding on our ageist, views on this society. So, as we get older, there's this assumption that we become less attractive.

I am seeing a bit of a shift thanks to the baby boomers. So, we are seeing older adults that are being represented in, say, commercials. But this is something is relatively new. If you go back 20 years, know everyone on a commercial was very young and looks a certain way. So, I do hope that we're going to see a shift here, more so because of the baby boomers.

And the thing is that it starts with the individual and, you know, coming back to the mindfulness practice is that through the mindfulness practice, we also recognize that everyone and everything is interconnected. Right. So, I could point my finger and say, I want society to start doing this, but it has to start from within. And so, what I would like to see, you know, is for the individual to bring awareness to how ageist attitudes and how ageism is showing up in their own lives.

And the way that we do this is we bring awareness of our thoughts, our behaviors, our emotions, what are we consuming in terms of food, what are we consuming in terms of media. You know, these are all pieces. These are all parts of our everyday life. We are then able to make choices more skillfully. But it starts from within first.

We could also, you know, teach our peers as well, have these conversations with our peers. So, it can be sort of this global conversation. And once it's a global conversation, well, then there's movement for change within our society at the individual level. This is something that, yeah, I would love all of us to do as a collective.

Jennifer Botterill

Absolutely. So important as a reminder for all of us to start within and take individual responsibility to create a greater collective whole. And part of the awareness that you've referred to and the constant education in terms of embracing the aging process. If you find someone who is dedicated and really wants to change their mindset, what tips could you share to help people truly embrace the aging process?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

You know, because these beliefs are largely ingrained, it's not easy. I think it does take effort so much like, you know, it takes effort to develop skill of mindfulness. Well, unlearning something can be challenging. It doesn't mean that it's impossible and in fact, it's really worth it. But it does take effort. And so, you know, usually I always say join workshops in webinars, gain knowledge about the importance of mindset, gain knowledge about aging, and the fact that aging is still a part of our life where we experience growth and we experience development, where we experience healing, that these things still happen later in life.

So, I think it's first about really educating yourself, either by attending workshops or reading particular books in the context of mindfulness. So of course, with mindfulness, I do see mindfulness as a foundation for meaningful aging. What I teach my participants to do is to begin to internalize this notion of impermanence. So, it's recognizing that everything that arises also dissipates.

So, whatever comes will also go. Whether these are, you know, negative feelings, positive feelings, neutral feelings, everything does come to an end, and that's okay. And it's being okay with it. It's sitting with this notion of impermanence. So, one reason why I think there's a lot of negativity about the aging process and of course, death is that there's a lot of fear, right?

There's a lot of fear. And when there's fear, there's resistance. And when there's fear, a resistance is also shaming. And so, these are constructs, you know, that really impact our day-to-day life and our ability to live a quality of life that is, you know, something that's meaningful for us that supports our wellness. So internalizing impermanence, I think, is really important.

So, for many people, that can be quite anxiety producing. But over time, the more that we sit with it, the more we become comfortable with it. The next piece is practicing gratitude.

Jennifer Botterill

I took my undergraduate degree in psychology. I remember even learning about the idea of practicing gratitude, and certainly to this day it's a practice and something that I tried to do on a very regular basis. I find it a very helpful exercise.

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Yes, and this I think, mindset also comes in here, like all of these constructs, these are all psychological constructs that are interrelated. So, in terms of practicing gratitude, while the mindset is really important, and our mindset also determines where we choose to focus our attention. So, I could focus on, you know, the pain in my lower back, or I could practice gratitude for everything else that I can do.

So, practicing gratitude is also, I think, a real important part to changing our mindset. And in terms of adopting a growth mindset, you know, part of it is staying curious.

Jennifer Botterill

Definitely, yes. Are there any other myths or misconceptions about ageism or mindfulness or embracing the aging process that need to be debunked from your point of view?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Many, you know, one thing is that mindfulness is now, in our general lexicon, many people are using this in their vocabulary without really being familiar with the practice itself. So, some people think that mindfulness and meditation are one in the same. But again, mindfulness is a skill. Meditation is a formal way which you could practice the skill. And when we engage in the practice, there's a lot of misconceptions in that.

When we practice mindfulness, it's about emptying your mind. That's not what it's about. Mindfulness, as I said, is I defined. It's about paying attention. And so, it's paying attention to everything and anything that shows up in terms of these momentary experiences, whether they're positive, negative or neutral. And another thing is that it's not a quick fix. Mindfulness is a skill that we develop, and we develop it over time, and we develop it through the consistent daily practice.

Also, when we engage in a practice, it's not about kind of blocking out the negative thinking or blanking out your mind. It's also not about staying still. There are different practices that we can engage in where you're not necessarily sitting still, and even with that, in a sitting practice, you know, if the body needs to move, you can move, but you move with intention.

So, it's how we engage in the movement that's important. And also, it's not about always being happy. Some people think that mindfulness and the cultivation of mindfulness is about always being happy and it's not. And emotions are simply pieces of information. It's how we relate to our emotions that can become problematic. So that's a bit about mindfulness in terms of ageism.

It really is this perspective of aging and, you know, some of the misconceptions of aging that I really try to bring out in the community and try to combat. You know, ageism is all around us and we might not recognize certain beliefs as ageist, which means that we might not even recognize that we ourselves have internalized some of these ageist attitudes, thoughts, beliefs.

And one of those ages stereotypes is that aging is all about decline. But really, the way that I see aging is that aging is about continued opportunity and growth. You know, whenever I speak to older adults in the community through various talks, I always like to bring up some of the role models that I have. So that's another thing is that often the role models are not always older adults, and so it's finding older adult role models.

And so I think that those are a few things that I want to share in terms of, you know, these misconceptions with age. There's growth, there's development, and that's so important to recognize. And I think that that will also help us appreciate the aging process.

Jennifer Botterill

That's it. Not only accept it but appreciate the aging process. So, I mean, so much incredible information that you've shared with us today that I know all of our listeners will find extremely valuable. If you could summarize one or two key takeaways that you would love our listeners to take away from our discussion today, what would they be?

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Okay. So, I think the first would be there are always opportunities for growth to learn and to heal. And I guess the next one would be the mindset matters. There are things that we can do to shift our mindset, to move from a fixed to a growth mindset. And moving to this growth mindset will support the aging process and will support our wellbeing as we get older.

Jennifer Botterill

Incredible. Well, thank you, Dr. Fiocco. And at one point in our discussion, you certainly encouraged all of us to gain knowledge and what an opportunity this has been. We're extremely grateful. Thank you, Dr. Fiocco.

Dr. Alexandra Fiocco

Thank you.

Jennifer Botterill

So that's it. Thanks for tuning in to Beyond Age, an exclusive podcast from Manulife. Tune in to the next episode where we talk to Joyce Lum from Toronto, Ontario, who'll be sharing her personal story of building resilience as a heart attack survivor. Don't forget to visit our website Manulife.ca/livehealthier. For more tips, videos and content from Manulife, we can help you live healthier for longer, no matter your age.

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