Staying sharp is important at every age. This is especially true for seniors who run a higher risk of cognitive decline and developing more serious issues like dementia. Studies point to five specific ways that seniors can boost their mental health:
1. Keep your mind moving
Intellectual stimulation is beneficial to the brain. One study showed that seniors who learned new skills, like digital photography and quilting had improved memory compared to other seniors who didn’t participate in similar activities. Finding meaningful ways to get involved is key to feeling happier and healthier and for intellectual stimulation. This could mean volunteering with animals, helping with grandchildren or playing sports. Anything where you feel useful and you’re making a true contribution will have a significant impact on your mental health. Another study suggests that creative activities in particular, such as theater, dance, writing and music, may improve older adults’ quality of life. Participants showed higher self-esteem and improved memory, reduced stress and increased social interaction–all key components of mental health for seniors as you’ll see below.
Any activity that keeps the mind active – from reading books to games, classes and hobbies – may help improve seniors’ lives but even these types of mentally stimulating activities have not been proven to prevent serious cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Research is promising and suggests that some informal mentally stimulating activities, such as reading or playing games, may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s-related cognitive impairment and dementia, but much more research on a wide spectrum of adults is needed. (Be aware of games that claim to ward off dementia or Alzheimer’s or dementia. While quiz and memory games may be fun, and even produce a “flow” state with similar benefits to meditation, studies have not proven them to be effective in the long term.)
The good news is that some scientists believe that these brain strengthening activities could protect the brain by creating a “cognitive reserve.” That means the brain becomes more adaptable, instead of less with age, which might make up for the age-related mental decline we can all expect to face as we grow older.
2. Maintain a healthy diet
You knew it was coming. And for good reason! There’s simply no substitute for nourishing your body for optimal health, particularly when it comes to mental health.
Foods high in fats and refined sugars make it difficult for your body to regulate insulin, which if left unchecked can create inflammation and lead to chronic diseases like diabetes and a variety of heart illnesses. Although these are common conditions that many experience when they get older, it doesn’t have to be. At this life stage, it’s especially important to focus on diets rich in vegetables, leafy greens and fermented food because they actually change the way nutrients are absorbed from food. When you eat these foods, neural pathways are activated between the brain and the gut, which are much more important to overall health than we ever expected.
The Mediterranean and Japanese diets, in particular, can actually improve your mood and help build better cognitive function.
Following a mix of these diets looks like this:
- Lots of vegetables and dark leafy greens
- Lean meat, fish & poultry
- Fermented foods like yogurt, Kefir, or miso
- Whole grains
- Plenty of water
Experts aren’t clear on exactly why the Mediterranean diet helps the brain but one theory is that its effect on cardiovascular health could be helping reduce the risk of dementia. This is the opposite effect of a typical Western diet full of fat, sugar and salt, which usually increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Research has shown that another diet called MIND (Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) might be helpful in maintaining mental health. It’s a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, and early research indicates that the MIND diet may be linked with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s plus a slower rate of cognitive decline.
The MIND diet includes 10 food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. It also limits five unhealthy groups: red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried food and fast food.
YouFit’s Premium+ members can get a complete Mediterranean diet menu, including recipes for every day of the week and step-by-step instructions approved by dietitians with our state-of-the-art app, EatLove.
3. Exercise regularly
Movement is essential to aging well, and key for mental health in particular. Research has shown that exercise including cardio machines, fitness classes, swimming, walking, dancing or even gardening can help reduce depression, lower blood pressure and improve brain function.
Aim for 3 hours of exercise a week to see benefits. This can be broken into as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day.
But the health benefits of movement go beyond feeling fit and strong.
- Regular exercise can be a welcome distraction, giving you somewhere to go and therefore building your self-esteem through purpose.
- Studies show that exercise grows the part of your brain associated with memory and learning.
- A separate study suggests that brain glucose metabolism – the rate your brain turns glucose into fuel – increases with more time spent doing moderate activity. This matters because researchers think this increased activity may reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a 2020 study found additional positive effects of exercise on the brain and concluded that a physically active lifestyle in older adults could potentially delay about one-third of dementia cases worldwide.
- Last, but not to be overlooked, seniors who exercise also sleep better. More sleep equates to more positive outlook in general. At any age, it’s important to choose activities you feel comfortable doing, and to build up the time and intensity of your workouts gradually.
4. Stay connected
Making new friends or spending time with the ones you have might be good for your brain. According to a study in 2021, older adults in Japan who enjoyed consistant high social engagement had a lower risk of dementia than those with low social engagement. Seniors who find meaningful and productive ways to engage with others often find a heightened sense of purpose, better moods and even live longer.
That’s because humans are social creatures. While your circle of friends and family may get smaller as you age, social interaction is still incredibly important to your overall health and longevity. But don’t necessarily put pressure on yourself to find a huge new group of friends. Social health benefits are actually associated with deep and meaningful connections in high quality relationships, rather than lots of acquaintances. Conversely, there’s also evidence that loneliness increases the risk of mental decline.
Ideas for adding more social activity to your daily life include:
- Signing up for activities at a local senior center
- Joining a gym with a SilverSneakers program, designed specifically for older adults
- Taking part in volunteer groups
- Consider rebuilding distant relationships
Social activities and programs are wonderful ways to connect with people, while keeping your brain alert and active. You’ll feel less alone and more engaged. Researchers don’t know for sure if any of these actions can prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline but there is a strong connection between strong relationships and a reduced risk of dementia.
5. Manage stress
Stress is a natural part of life but over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory, and increase your risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Even when you’re retired, life is still stressful. Losing loved ones, financial insecurity, family feuds and even watching too much TV news can be overwhelming without a strategy to combat stress. This can lead to:
- Problems sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Feeling pressured or rushed
- Eating too much or not enough
- Irritability and moodiness
Everyone needs strategies to bounce back from stressful situations. These ideas can help:
- Exercise regularly. Not only does exercise benefit your overall health, but gentle movement such as walking, swimming or yoga can feel therapeutic and help bring a sense of calm.
- Journaling. Getting frustrations out of your mind and onto paper can release built up stress and sometimes help you see a new way around a troubling issue.
- Meditation. Download an app, do a search on YouTube or find a class for guided meditation so that you can practice mindfulness. This means quieting your mind for as little as five minutes at a time, focusing only on the present moment. Meditation improves mental resilience and helps build immunity against stressful situations. Even, simple breathing exercises can help your body relax. Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises can actually reduce muscle stiffness, lower blood pressure and relieve overall stress.
- Play games & puzzles. Sudoku, crosswords, card games and jigsaw puzzles all give your mind somewhere else to go. Take a break from the world and its troubles. Enjoy a simple task that allows your brain to decrease stress while increasing cognitive ability.
- Focus on the positive. Let all those old grudges go. Release your grip on things beyond your control and make a daily list of things you’re grateful for. Be specific. Once you start noticing the small things, like the particular pink of a sunset on an evening walk, you’ll find things to be grateful for more often, which will give you a renewed sense of calm.
It’s never too late. Seniors can make an impact on their well-being today with these simple ways to boost their mental health.