Mental health is as important as physical health. In fact, studies show that good mental health can make physical health better.
Disorders affecting seniors
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions affecting today's seniors. The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that about 5% to 6% of seniors have been diagnosed with depression, and about 9% of older adults have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of either disease (see sidebars) that persist for two weeks or more mean medical intervention is necessary. Counseling and medication have been shown to work well for many seniors.
Day-to-day mental health
If you don't have a diagnosable condition, that doesn't mean you still can't have bad periods in your life. Experts say there are many self-care tips that can help you stay mentally healthy.
"Practice gratuity," says Reshmi Saranga, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex, N.C. "It's easy to get overwhelmed and depressed when you're not thankful for what you have. Develop a glass half full attitude and take time each day to appreciate the beauty in life."
Carve out time to do something you enjoy every day. This is especially important for caregivers. "Self-care is not selfish," Saranga says. "In fact, it's a key element in developing personal happiness. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others."
Evaluate the effect of friends and family on your life. "Nourish the relationships that help you thrive, and avoid negative people and their influences," Saranga advises.
Live in the moment. "Mindfulness is about enjoying the present moment at hand," Saranga says. "If you can find this peace, you'll thrive. Don't dwell in the past or worry about the future."
Exercise your brain
Physical activity gives your body a health boost. Same goes for your brain—exercise keeps it fit.
"The phrase 'use it or lose it' applies to brain health," says Douglas Scharre, M.D., director of the division of cognitive neurology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. "As your brain ages, you may have mild difficulties retrieving memories of recent events but no trouble learning and storing information. Learning new information or new motor skills will keep your mind sharp, potentially delay aging effects on the brain, and help keep you mentally healthy."
Social connections have been shown to be an integral part of maintaining your mental health. "Involve yourself with other people," Scharre advises. "You don't need to have an elaborate plan. Play games, work on puzzles, go to a play, discuss a book, or enjoy a meal. As long as you're interacting, you're stimulating your mind."
Check your environment
Making your living space pleasant and filled with things you love can keep you in the right frame of mind, but you should also consider the quality of the lighting.
The proper light has been shown to affect mental health. Light boxes, for instance, are used for a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is associated with reduced outdoor light during the winter months. Once it gets brighter in the spring, many people suffering from SAD can put the light box away. But everyone needs to pay attention to their regular indoor lighting year-round.
"Because we spend so much time indoors, artificial lighting should mimic natural light as much as possible in order to keep all biological functions operating well," says Robert Soler, vice president of research at BIOS Lighting in Carlsbad, Calif. "Exposure to improper types of light has been associated with an increased likelihood of fatigue, poor sleeping patterns, headaches, and low mood."
In some cases it may not be the light itself that is the problem, but whether it reaches your brain. "The aging eye can change how light affects you," Soler says. "Yellowing of the lens and a reduction in light transmission means you may need more light or a different type of indoor lighting."
See your doctor if you feel depressed or anxious for two weeks or more. You may have a medical condition affecting your mental health or be taking a medication with side effects that could contribute to symptoms of a mental health disorder.
If you feel down, remember that studies show seniors are among the most resilient people of any age group. "It's not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up again," Saranga says. "You've built wisdom over the years, so don't let little things ruin your entire day."
Symptoms of depression in older adults
A major depressive episode can produce many symptoms, but the following tend to be more common in seniors:
• Problem sleeping
Other symptoms include:
• Appetite changes
• Isolating oneself
• Thoughts of self-harm
• Aches and pains
• Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
Symptoms of anxiety
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can be the same as depression:
• Difficulty concentrating
• Muscle tension
• Uncontrolled feelings of worry
• Sleep problems
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