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How to Maintain Mental Health as You Age

Matters of the mind

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How to Maintain Mental Health as You Age

There’s plenty to eagerly anticipate as you age: more time to spare, an empty nest, time for hobbies, and the opportunity to travel. An estimated 20 percent of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern.

Safeguard your golden years with these strategies for preventing and navigating mental health concerns.

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01

Depression

Sustained sadness is far from depression’s only effect—a 2018 study was the first to find comprehensive evidence linking depression to a speedier decline in cognitive functioning. Depression in older adults is also associated with an increased risk of heart diseases and a greater risk of death from illnesses in general.

Risk factors for depression include life stress and a lack of social support. Women and those who are single, widowed, or divorced also have a greater risk. Events that often accompany aging, such as losing loved ones and the inability to perform once-loved activities, are among other triggers.

02

Treatment strategies

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely considered an effective therapy for depression (and anxiety, too!).

“CBT operates from the perspective that, although a situation can be very stressful, the way we interpret the situation through our thoughts is what creates anxiety and depression,” says Mihaela Anghel, therapist and owner of reThink: Psychotherapy Services.

For instance, through CBT the thought “What’s the point; I have nothing to look forward to” can be shaped into “I don’t go to work anymore and I miss it and because I have more free time, I can find other ways to feel and be productive.”

03

Prevention through lifestyle and diet

Exercise

Research supports the efficacy of exercise for mild to moderate depression.

New challenges

Visit a museum, read books, or enroll in a language class. Adopting a new challenge is thought to help adjust your brain’s dopamine levels (a chemical connected to pleasure, enjoyment, and learning).

Anti-inflammatory foods

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that markers of inflammation were significantly higher in those with depression and concluded that the two were associated. To help fight inflammation, snack on anti-inflammatory foods such as cherries, legumes, turmeric, and ginger.

Omega-3

Evidence suggests that eating food containing omega-3s (including salmon and sardines) may lessen depression.

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04

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness, affecting 40 million adults in the US each year. Anxiety can stem from genetic predispositions, experiences, beliefs, behaviors, and environmental or life events. According to the author of a 2015 study, an anxiety disorder may accelerate the aging process by three to five years. Fortunately, the same study also revealed that treatment may reverse these damages.

05

Treatment strategies

Anghel suggests existential therapy to ease aging-induced anxiety. Anxiety in older adults is often created by losses such as decreased physical function, impaired cognition, or memory loss, as well as the conclusions of their careers. Existential counseling refocuses clients on what they currently have and how they can recreate meaning.

If interactions with difficult people and situations or dealing with adult children are making you anxious, developing communication skills may help. Through counseling, you can learn how to express clear needs, remain open to another’s point of view, and value the relationship versus “being right,” says Anghel. These skills can be practiced during a session, and then applied to real life.

06

Prevention through lifestyle and diet

Avoid excessive sugar

Research shows eating too much sugar can trigger anxiety.

Valerian

Consider taking valerian, which is often used for stress and insomnia. (Remember to always check with your health care practitioner before taking a new supplement.)

Lemon balm

Try lemon balm. According to preliminary studies, this herb has been shown to ease some symptoms of anxiety.

Essential oils

Lavender and rose essential oils are thought to have a calming effect by communicating with the areas of the brain that control mood and emotion.

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07

Memory loss

Aging, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, uncontrolled diabetes, hearing loss, inadequate sleep, head injury (including minor blows), insufficient social interaction, inadequate mental stimulation, and genetics may all put us at risk for developing memory loss or dementia.

08

Treatment strategies

New skills

Keep your mind sharp by learning a new language or instrument, playing a game such as bridge, or tackling crossword puzzles. The simple act of attempting to learn is enough to activate the rusty parts of our brains.

Exercise

One study of 70- to 80-year-olds with mild cognitive impairment revealed that a moderate-intensity walking program improved memory in the exercisers.

Attend to your heart health

Your heart keeps blood flowing to your brain, bringing oxygen and nutrients with it. To maintain your ticker, manage your weight and keep blood pressure within a healthy range (under 120/80) and your cholesterol in check.

09

Prevention through lifestyle and diet

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba has been traditionally used as a brain-booster, especially in the areas of mood, alertness, and mental ability.

Essential fatty acids

Scientific evidence ties consuming omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish and many nuts or plant oils (such as walnuts) to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.

The Mediterranean diet

Eating foods such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and some dairy, fish, and poultry—may also lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

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10

Develop an action plan

Therapist Mihaela Anghel often sees aging clients who struggle with “secondary issues” such as loneliness, isolation, inability to solve problems, or lack of physical exercise. These often fuel more serious health issues such as anxiety and depression.

To address these issues, Anghel says counseling can connect us to groups such as walk/run gatherings, art classes, clubs, and resources such as information on retirement homes or connections to professional organizing businesses.

11

Substance use and addiction

Substance abuse in adults 50 and older is expected to grow (from 2.8 to 5.7 million by 2020, in the US alone). Genetics, mental disorders, and troubled relationships are thought to be risk factors.

12

Treatment strategies

According to Melinda Hollis, an Edmonton-based psychotherapist, disconnection with self and others is at the heart of addiction. To foster connection, Hollis suggests attending one-on-one or group counseling and maintaining your physical, emotional, and spiritual self. She encourages aging adults to explore their new options for connecting with others, including volunteering or joining one of the many seniors’ groups across the country.

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13

Prevention through lifestyle and diet

Acetyl-L-carnitine

Research is investigating acetyl-L-carnitine for cravings associated with alcoholism.

Acupuncture

A 2012 review of studies also found acupuncture shows promise in treating opiate addiction. However, the study also recognized the need for more rigorously designed studies.

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