Mental health is just as important as physical health. In fact, mental health may be more important because it affects your ability to maintain good physical health. According to BJC HealthCare, “Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, affect your ability to participate in healthy behaviors.” Additionally, the CDC states that “Depression complicates chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke” and is “linked to higher health care costs and tied to higher mortality from suicide and cardiac disease.”
Older adults have an increased risk of developing depression, however, depression is not a normal part of aging. According to Harvard Health, causes of depression in older adults can include health problems such as “illness and disability, chronic or severe pain, cognitive decline, damage to your body image due to surgery or sickness” as well as loneliness and isolation. The CDC reports estimated rates of major depression in adults increases significantly for older people who require home healthcare.
Depression has also been linked to dementia. A study conducted by the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry concluded that “Depressive symptoms in midlife or in late life are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.” Harvard Health states that “About 17% of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have major depression, and the prevalence is even higher in people with other types of dementia.”
Depression is a mood disorder, while dementia is an “overall term for diseases and conditions characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking skills that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities” as defined by the Alzheimer’s Association, but their symptoms can be similar, making it difficult to distinguish between the two.
It’s no surprise then, that many of the ways to reduce the risk of developing dementia also apply to preventing depression. Below are actions seniors can take to help combat depression. While some are used as therapies, they do not replace treatment. If you are experiencing signs of depression such as acute sadness, slowed movement or speech, memory problems, or neglecting personal care such as hygiene, see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
The trick to having a healthy brain and body is all in how you treat them. Psychologist Roger Walsh purports that often underutilized therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs) offer significant therapeutic advantages and sometimes can even be as effective as psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy. TLCs refer to “exercise, nutrition and diet, time in nature, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious or spiritual involvement, and service to others.”
In a paper entitled Lifestyle medicine for depression, published in BMC Psychiatry in 2014, the authors suggest similar preventative approaches, including modifying one’s “diet; physical activity and exercise; relaxation and sleep-wake cycles; recreation and work-rest balance; and minimization/avoidance of smoking, alcohol, or illicit substances.”
So basically, the key to staying healthy mentally (and physically for that matter) lies in eating your veggies, getting enough sleep, exercising, going outside, and saying “no” to drugs.
Regular visits with family and friends
Establishing and maintaining close ties with others is another great way to stave off loneliness and isolation and therefore depression. According to the same Lifestyle medicine for depression paper mentioned above, “social isolation and less intimate engagement with the family unit may exert a cost on mental health.” Psycom.net, which was founded by the renowned psychiatrist and clinical psychopharmacologist Dr. Ivan K. Goldberg, reports that increasing social support is important in helping elderly patients with depression. And if you still aren’t convinced, Psychology Today states that “Interacting with others boosts feelings of well-being and decreases feelings of depression.”
Stay social by keeping in touch with friends and family, inviting someone over for dinner, hosting a game night, joining a club, taking a class, volunteering, or visiting your local senior center. Need some more ideas? Check out our article on Ways to Make New Friends After 60.
In psychotherapy, you talk with a trained therapist privately, but art therapy allows us to express our feelings through creativity. A systematic literature review published in 2019 focused on the use of creative arts interventions including art, dance, drama, and music on depression and depressive symptoms of older adults. It found that the physical, intra-personal, cultural, cognitive, and social elements reduced depression and symptoms. Find a certified creative arts therapist near you.
The aforementioned Lifestyle medicine for depression paper also cites that mindfulness-based meditation practices may also improve mood and prevent depressive episodes. Harvard Health states that “A regular practice can help your brain better manage stress and anxiety that can trigger depression.” Here are some Guided Meditations for Relaxation and Deep Sleep.
Find a sense of purpose
When you don’t have a raison d’être, there’s no reason to get out of bed every day. One investigation into those who were diagnosed with depression found that the “Participants were dealing with profound ruptures to what they were living for—their dreams for work, relationships, and a meaningful life.” It could be as simple as finding a new hobby or interest. If you need help finding your “why,” here are seven ways to identify your sense of purpose.