We spend most of our adult lives looking forward to the day we can retire and the life it will allow. However, growing older comes with considerable challenges that often affect our mental health. According to the CDC, It is estimated that 20% of people ages 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. The most common conditions include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder). Although the rate of older adults with depressive symptoms tends to increase with age, depression is not a normal part of growing older. Significant life changes like retirement and sudden loss of loved ones and friends can be factors for some. For others, slowing down and not having the mobility and freedom they once had can lead to depression or anxiety.
As we go through life transitions, prioritizing our wellness is more important than ever. Here are some key ways to support cognitive function and support emotional wellness.
Stay connected: Community and a sense of belonging can go a long way in helping us feel less alone and supported through life's emotional ups and downs. Friends and family give us a feeling of purpose and belonging and are cornerstones to emotional wellbeing and a fulfilling life. Loneliness has been linked to a higher risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and depression. It also has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and blood pressure. One 2015 study famously concluded that a lack of social connections was as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. When it comes to building a social circle, experts suggest finding people who are supportive and share your interests. Senior centers, activities within the community, and places like the YMCA are excellent places to meet people and build a community. Finding friends through clubs and activities is a great way to bond over shared mutual interests. You can also reach out to your town’s social services department. Each town has a municipal agent that assists town residents aged 60+ by providing information and referrals to local, state, and federal services and benefit programs. The Southwestern Connecticut Agency on Aging (SWCAA) website is filled with resources. If you’re in need of emotional support, warmlines are always an excellent way to connect.
Keep your brain active: The National Institute on Aging tells us connecting with other people through social activities can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated and more engaged with the world around you. Participating in social activities may lower the risk of some health problems and improve well-being. Studies show that personally meaningful and productive activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function. Hobbies such as playing chess, reading a book, or doing a daily Sudoku puzzle can help boost overall cognitive function. Specifically, these hobbies may help sharpen quick-thinking skills, such as processing speed, decision-making, and short-term memory.
Stay as physically active as possible: Being physically active can help improve your strength, give you more energy, improve balance, prevent or delay heart disease and diabetes and help with emotional balance. Some research indicates that exercise might help prevent neuron loss in key areas of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and other functions. Other studies suggest that exercise plays a role in new neuron formation in this region. Walking, yoga, swimming, or group classes are all recommended exercises for older adults. The National Institute on Aging has great tips and resources to help you get started.
Maintain good sleep habits: Sleep significantly affects our physical and emotional health. Studies have shown that insufficient sleep and sleeping longer than average can increase your likelihood of developing dementia. Most importantly, it can decrease our immunity, making it hard for our bodies to fight off infections. We also are three times more likely to catch a cold. How well we sleep affects our mood as well. Improper sleep can lead to irritation or anger or make you more vulnerable to stress. Chronic lack of sleep can also raise the chance of having a mood disorder. One large study showed that you're five times more likely to develop depression when you have insomnia, and your odds of anxiety or panic disorders are even greater. It is recommended that people over the age of 65 get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Avoid sudden or drastic changes to your sleep schedule and substances that might affect your sleep, like caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine. Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible and make your sleep routine your own by establishing a pre-sleep routine that works best for you.
Stay as independent as possible: Losing independence can be devastating for adults as they age. They spent most of their lives working, caring for a family, and making their own decisions. Independence is good for an individual's physical, mental, and emotional well-being. One way to stay independent is to maintain your strength and balance. Lack of strength leads to loss of muscle mass and core balance, which can lead to falls and injuries, often leading to hospital stays and time in assisted living facilities. To stay independent, one needs to acknowledge when extra help is required. Several options can help with leading a successful independent life. Meal delivery services, home aids, and transportation services can be helpful.
Get Help When You Need It
If you’re concerned about your mental health, don’t be afraid to get help. Remember, depression is not a normal part of aging! About 80% of all cases of depression in older adults are treatable. Yet, less than half of those suffering seek out treatment. Generational stigma can play a role in why older adults may not seek out help. Open communication with your loved one about how they are feeling can help identify if they may need assistance. How do you know if you or a loved one had late life anxiety or depression? The symptoms of depression and anxiety can also present differently in older adults. Fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritability, and confusion may all be signs of depression. Anxiety can present as fatigue, chest pains, headaches, muscle tension, trembling nausea, or difficulty swallowing. Struggling with daily routines for extended periods may also be a sign of depression. If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, start by taking a free mental health screening. The Hub has resource guides to help you find treatment and support near you.