Age to Your Possibilities Instead of Your Problems


Data shows that Americans are living longer than ever. But for many people, quantity of years is far less important than quality of years. So how can we ensure that increased longevity translates to maximum well-being?

Mental health is a huge factor in healthy aging, and yet it often gets overlooked because of more pressing physical illnesses or because of insurance limitations. According to the National Council on Aging, 1 in 4 older adults experiences some brain disease or disorder such as dementia, depression or anxiety, and this number is expected to double to 15 million by 2030.

Given the importance of mental health to a long and happy life, let’s take a closer look at the psychological and emotional issues associated with aging. You might be surprised to learn that there are many things you can do right now to help yourself to good mental health well into the future.

Kick your mind into high gear


As we grow older, we often joke about having “senior moments.” But underneath the humor is real fear about brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia—terms that are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. According to WebMD, dementia is the name for a group of brain disorders that make it hard to remember, think clearly, make decisions or even control your emotions. Alzheimer’s disease is one of those disorders, but there are many different types and causes of dementia.

So what can you do to maintain your brain? An observational study published this year by JAMA Psychiatry found that engaging in intellectually demanding and stimulating activities may lower the odds of dementia. (Sorry, watching TV and shopping don’t count.) Scientists think that consistent mental stimulation may protect the brain by establishing “cognitive reserve.” This may help the brain become more responsive and adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related brain changes and health conditions that affect cognition. To start, keep your mind active. Reading, taking classes, traveling, learning new skills or volunteering are all ways to keep your brain engaged and your emotional health strong.

Formal cognitive training also seems to benefit the brain, according to the National Institute on Aging. A few years ago, the organization conducted reputable research titled the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, in which healthy adults 65 and older participated in 10 sessions of memory training, reasoning training or processing-speed training. The sessions improved participants’ mental skills in the area in which they were trained, and most of these improvements persisted for years after the training was completed.

In addition to formal cognitive training, commercial brain health programs such as Lumosity or Nintendo’s Brain Age have become big business in recent years. These computer programs are created by game designers and scientists, and they provide “mental workouts,” which they claim improve cognition through puzzles, memory quizzes and concentration skill drills. It is difficult to assess the comparative benefit of these programs because the majority of research available is sponsored by the companies that market them. Still, if you find them enjoyable, they are another way to keep your mind busy, and they may provide some short-term improvement in some kinds of mental performance.

Ultimately, you don’t need to invest in special games or brain-training programs to boost your brain power—just do something mentally challenging that you enjoy, preferably with people you enjoy. Also, remember that physical health and brain health are intertwined, so make sure to get plenty of exercise, control your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, and follow a healthy diet. Staying mentally and physically active may not prevent brain disease altogether, but the combination will certainly enhance your mental health and overall quality of life.

Depression can be hard to distinguish


Turn on the TV and you’ll likely see multiple commercials in which people in their “golden years” look like they are having the time of their lives. But in reality, there is a potential dark side to the golden years—depression.

Depression is not just having “the blues”; it is a real and treatable medical condition often affecting people 65 and older. Depression frequently goes untreated among older people because it can be difficult to distinguish from acute memory problems or dementia, and the side effects of certain drugs can mimic depressive symptoms, according to a 2017 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Health problems and chronic illnesses are often catalysts for depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, including stroke-related impairments, hearing loss, poor eyesight and heart disease, all of which can precipitate depression. The impact of these health problems isn’t just physical but also emotional because limitations in mobility, hearing or eyesight often cause people to withdraw from friends and social activities, and the increased isolation serves to compound depression.

Another cause of depression among older adults is grief, brought about by the steady loss of friends or by the death of a spouse. Although acute grief is a normal reaction to loss, there is a chance it can morph into persistent grief, a condition described when grief persists beyond 12 months. Grief can even result in post-traumatic stress disorder, if the loss is sudden or especially traumatic.

Under all these circumstances, depression might seem like an inevitable part of growing older, but the Mayo Clinic cautions that it is not. Signs that shouldn’t be ignored—whether they are the result of depression, illness or medication—include memory difficulties or personality changes; physical aches or pains; fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep problems or loss of interest in sex that is not caused by a medical condition or medication; a preference for staying home rather than going out to socialize or doing new things; and suicidal thinking or feelings, especially in older men.

For people reluctant to seek treatment, it’s important to encourage conversation, whether that’s with a health-care provider or trusted friend, family member or clergy member who can help identify helpful resources. Crucial numbers in an emergency are 911 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). (Press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.)

Anxiety is depression’s “helper”


Anxiety is a condition that is often a byproduct of depression, though it can exist in older adults as a stand-alone disorder, brought on by money concerns, health concerns and loneliness, among other factors. Although everyone feels anxious or worried at times, if these feelings intensify, they can become generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is the most common anxiety disorder among seniors. The American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry says that people suffering from GAD worry about things in which there is little cause for concern—although they’re often aware that their concern is disproportionate.

Untreated depression and anxiety not only negatively impact emotional well-being, but they also can adversely affect conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, making them harder to treat. Depression and anxiety also cause people to neglect their medications, skip exercise and eat poorly, further exacerbating a negative health cycle. According to the AAGP, anxiety and memory are closely linked, so anxiety can affect memory and even play a part in amnesia or flashbacks.

Because the mental and physical effects of depression and anxiety can compound and reinforce each other, it is imperative that they not go untreated. In addition, the AAGP recommends seeking expertise to address concerns that can be alleviated (such as with a visit to a financial adviser to address money worries), limiting exposure to news coverage of current events, and giving treatment—whether it’s therapy, medication, stress-reduction practices or other forms of treatment—time to work.

If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing depressive symptoms or anxiety, contact your health-care professional. Treatment options may include therapy, antidepressants, meditation, and improvements in diet and exercise. A list of resources for a variety of issues and topics is available on the AAGP website.

Savor the silver lining


Aging is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be all bad news. Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a pioneer in the field of geriatric psychiatry, researched and wrote extensively about the great possibilities of aging. In his model, people can attain new levels of satisfaction and fulfillment if they approach aging as a catalyst for embracing rich experiences, developing new passions and as fodder for reinvention. A positive outlook and proactive self-care can help you age into your possibilities instead of your problems.

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