Many factors influence healthy aging. Some of these, such as genetics, are not in our control. Others, like exercise, a healthy diet, going to the doctor regularly — and taking care of our mental health — are within our reach. Mental health, or mental wellness, is essential to our overall health and quality of life. It affects how we think, feel, act, make choices, and relate to others. Managing social isolation, loneliness, stress, depression, and mood through medical and self-care is key to healthy aging.
Here are several ways we can promote healthy aging by managing our mental wellness in various areas:
Social isolation and loneliness
Although they sound similar, social isolation and loneliness are different. Loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone or separated, while social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly. However, if not addressed, both can lead to significant health problems. Aging adults who are socially isolated or feel lonely are at higher risk for heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline. A 2021 study of more than 11,000 adults older than age 70 found that loneliness was associated with a greater risk of heart disease. Another recent study found that socially isolated older adults experienced more chronic lung conditions and depressive symptoms compared to older adults with social support. Feeling lonely can also impact memory. A study of more than 8,000 adults older than 65 found that loneliness was linked to faster cognitive decline.
What can we do?
Staying connected with others may help boost mood and improve overall well-being. Stay in touch with family and friends in person or over the phone. Scheduling time each day to connect with others can help maintain connections. Meet new people by taking a class to learn something new, or hone a skill you already have. Long-term stress also may contribute to or worsen a range of physical health problems, including digestive disorders, headaches, and sleep disorders.
Stress is a natural part of life and comes in many forms. Sometimes stress arises from difficult events or circumstances. Research shows that constant stress can change the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's or related dementias. As we age, cortisol levels in our body increase steadily, and this age-related increase in stress may drive changes in the brain.
What can we do?
Finding ways to lower stress and increase emotional stability may support healthy aging. We can help manage stress with meditation techniques, physical activity, and by participating in activities we enjoy. Keeping a journal may also help you identify and challenge negative and unhelpful thoughts. Reach out to friends and family who can help you cope in a positive way.
Depression and overall mood
Although depression is common in aging adults, it can be difficult to recognize. For some older adults with depression, sadness is not their main symptom. Instead, they might feel numb or uninterested in activities and may not be as willing to talk about their feelings. Depression not only affects mental health, but also physical health. Depression increases risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders. Research has also shown that recurrent depression is a risk factor for dementia.
What can we do?
Depression, even when severe, can be treated. As soon as you begin noticing signs, it's important to get evaluated by a healthcare professional. In addition to deep sadness or numbness, lack of sleep and loss of appetite are also common symptoms of depression in aging adults. If you think you or a loved one may have depression, start by making an appointment to see your doctor or health care provider. If you are thinking of harming yourself, get help immediately — call the 24-hour 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).
Leisure activities and hobbies
It turns out our favorite activities are not only fun — they may also be good for our health. Research shows that people who participate in hobbies and social and leisure activities may be at lower risk for some health problems. For example, one study found that participation in a community choir program for older adults reduced loneliness and increased interest in life. Another study showed that older adults who spent at least an hour reading or engaged in other hobbies had a decreased risk of dementia compared to those who spent less than 30 minutes a day on hobbies. These activities significantly improve aging adults' quality of life and well-being, from better cognitive function, memory, and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction. Even hobbies as simple as taking care of a pet can improve health. According to a 2020 study, pet ownership (or regular contact with pets) was associated with better cognitive function, and in some cases, better physical function.
What can we do?
Look for opportunities to participate in activities. Get out and about by going to a sporting event, trying a new restaurant, or visiting a museum. Learn how to cook or play a musical instrument. Consider volunteering at a school, library, or hospital to become more active in your community.
Taking care of our physical, mental, and cognitive health is important for healthy aging. Even making small changes in our daily lives can help us live longer and better. In general, we can support our physical health by staying active, eating and sleeping well, and going to the doctor regularly. Take care of your mental health by interacting with family and friends, trying to stay positive, and participating in activities you enjoy. Taking steps to achieve better physical and mental health may reduce the risk for Alzheimer's and related dementias as we age.