How to Improve the Mental Health of Older Adults
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” – Robert Browning
Older adults should be enjoying their so-called “golden years,” yet too many are beset with mental health issues that, in addition to other medical conditions they may have, contribute to a decline in their mental health. There is hope to help counter this, however, and new research points to innovative, as well as common sense, approaches on how to improve the mental health of older adults.
Learn How to Cope with Anger
Research from the American Psychological Association shows that anger is more harmful to the health of older adults than sadness. The effects of anger experienced daily was related to higher inflammation levels and chronic illness for study participants 80 years old and above, but not for younger seniors, while sadness wasn’t relate to either inflammation or chronic illness.
Researchers noted that not all negative emotions, including anger, is bad, saying anger is an “energizing emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals.” With younger seniors, anger may be useful to help them overcome challenges in life and newly-developing age-related losses so that they can be healthier. On the other hand, once older adults reach the age of 80, since many of them begin to experience “irreversible losses and some of life’s pleasures fall out of reach, “ that’s when anger becomes problematic.
Education and therapy, suggest the study authors, may help older adults reduce their anger by regulating their emotions, or by offering better strategies to cope with anger and manage inevitable age-related changes.
Finding Ways to Age Gracefully
Getting older doesn’t have to mean precipitous decline. Aging gracefully is more than a feel-good concept. Researchers from University of Alberta have identified different factors that help individuals over the age of 55 maintain healthy memory and prevent memory decline. The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Their study findings also have implications for targeted early intervention efforts for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers found different risk factors for stable and rapidly declining memory and said that it may be possible to use these risk factors to improve outcomes in older adults. In the study, adults with healthy memories were more likely to be educated, female, and engage in more social activities, and novel cognitive activities. Healthy memory in adults aged 55 to 75 was associated with lower heart rate, higher body mass index, more self-maintenance activities, and living companions. And adults over the age of 75 had fewer depressive symptoms and a quicker step.
On the other hand, older adults with declining memories seemed to engage in fewer new cognitive activities. Higher heart rates and less self-maintenance activities engagement were found in younger adults, aged 55 to 75, while those adults over the age of 75 walked slower and participated in fewer social activities.
Researchers said these are modifiable and protective factors that may be converted to potential intervention targets serving two purposes: promoting healthy aging (aging gracefully) and preventing or delaying impairment, accelerated decline and potentially even dementia. For adults over the age of 75, for example, clinicians may be able to use targeted interventions to improve mobility or increase new cognitive activities in men.
Exercise Benefits Older Adults, Too
Exercise is an evidence-based approach that is useful in reducing stress and getting rid of tension, decreasing anxiety and depression and helping to boost overall well-being and health. It doesn’t matter if the individual is young or old. Exercise can benefit everyone – including older adults, who are often written off as a population that just has to accept age-related infirmities and limitations and nothing can be done to change it.
In fact, research from the University of Maryland published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society found that acute exercise in older adults produces a positive impact on those regions of the brain that are associated with memory and recall. The hippocampus, for example, which shrinks as people age and is one of the first areas of the brain that Alzheimer’s disease attacks, can enjoy increased volume as a result of regular exercise.
Researchers liken the effect to a muscle that adapts to repeated use, saying that single exercise sessions “may flex cognitive neural networks in ways that promote adaptations over time,” and may lead to increased network integrity and function and “allow more efficient access to memories.”
Thinking Outside of the Box
Exercise doesn’t have to be predictable or boring to be beneficial to older adults. In fact, innovative approaches to getting this population involved in physical exercise may be just the motivation some older adults need to get started. Case in point: electric bikes.
Researchers from the University of Reading found that older adults who exercise using electric bikes (e-biked) receive comparable cognitive and mental health benefits to those adults using a pedal-powered standard bike. The benefits accrued to cyclists aged 50 to 83 whether they used an electrically-powered bike or one with standard pedals.
What’s even more interesting is that the study found people using e-bikes had even greater improvement in brain function and mental well-being than those using standard bikes. The group using e-bikes in the study spent 28 percent of their time in the lowest (eco) setting, and 15 percent of the time with the motor completely off. The e-bike group said they felt more confident doing the three 30-minute rides each week for 8 weeks than the standard pedal bike group reported.
Furthermore, researchers said their findings show that the older adults using e-bikes benefitted from greater confidence and self-esteem in that they were able to get outdoors and explore the local area and interact with people in the natural environment. They knew they had electric support to get home safely and without stress after their journey.
Barlow, M.A., Wrosch, C., Gouin, J.P. & Kunzmann, U. (2019). Is Anger, but Not Sadness, Associated With Chronic Inflammation and Illness in Older Adulthood? American Psychological Association: Psychology and Aging, 34(3): 330-340. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/pag-pag0000348.pdf
McFall, G.P., McDermott, K.L., & Dixon, R.A. (2019). Modifiable Risk Factors Discriminate Memory Trajectories in Non-Demented Aging: Precision Factors and Targets for Promoting Healthier Brain Aging and Preventing Dementia? Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Retrieved from https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad180571
Won, J., Alfini, A.J., Weiss, L.R., & Michelson, C.S. (2019). Semantic Memory Activation After Acute Exercise in Healthy Older Adults. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-international-neuropsychological-society/article/semantic-memory-activation-after-acute-exercise-in-healthy-older-adults/07DE0F919CEFBCE268A95474DFA1BC47
Leyland, L.A., Spencer, B., Beale, N., Jones, T., van Reekum, C.M. (2019). The effect of cycling on cognitive function and well-being in older adults. PLoS One, 14(2). Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0211779
Kane, S. (2019). How to Improve the Mental Health of Older Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-improve-the-mental-health-of-older-adults/