While we face many challenges to our mental health in our daily lives, this is a common part of growth, and there are many ways to cope with and even harness these challenges to improve our mental state.
As we get older, most of us experience a steady decline in our physical and mental health. We start to notice aches and pains in our joints and experience lower energy levels than we are used to. Things begin to slip from our memory, and many of us notice reductions in our attention span. This stage is often accompanied by a shift towards an “empty nest” lifestyle where children start to leave home, and the social structure of life takes a turn (for better or worse). It may now feel like you have all the time in the world to do what you love, but the general decline of your body and mind is a harsh reminder of the encroaching pressures of mortality. Aging can have a massive impact on our mental health, but how we approach the coming of age can make all the difference in our ability to overcome adversity.
While we face many challenges to our mental health in our daily lives, this is a common part of growth, and there are many ways to cope with and even harness these challenges to improve our mental state. One of the most common obstacles that we face at every stage of life is stress. Stress is a natural response that has been crucial for our evolution and is evoked when we are placed in unfamiliar situations. Our minds and bodies find comfort in static environments (homeostasis). Stress helps us be aware, take in information, and make quick decisions to get back to our normal, relaxed state. Where this begins to deteriorate mental health is the constant, inappropriate, firing of the stress response, also known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can negatively impact physical, emotional, social, and cognitive health, and is strongly correlated with the incidence of heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and even accidents.
Although recent advances in technology have facilitated new work-from-home initiatives and created a sense of freedom for some people, we often ignore the associated negative consequences, such as reduced social interaction, increased screen time, and overall reductions in activity levels (1,2). Over the past 2 years, public health initiatives have primarily focused on limiting the spread of COVID-19 and largely failed to address the profound psychological and social effects associated with restrictions. During this time, we experienced an unprecedented increase in drug and alcohol consumption (3-5). The United States experienced increases in alcohol sales of 54% and a 262% increase in online alcohol sales compared to pre-pandemic statistics (4). Canada has not escaped this increase in consumption, as we currently face $20 billion dollars worth of lost productivity and $13.1 billion dollars worth of healthcare costs due to substance abuse (5). While substance use can be one of the most accessible coping strategies for dealing with stress, it comes with a high risk for abuse and addiction. That’s why it is especially important to reinforce healthy habits and behaviours to strengthen our cognitive and emotional resilience and protect ourselves against age-associated mental decline.
Social interaction plays a vital role in mental well-being. Surrounding yourself with a strong community of dependable people can provide a source of advice and comfort and is a great coping mechanism to deal with stressful experiences. Studies have also shown that social involvement can protect against age-associated cognitive decline (6). Providing elderly individuals with more opportunities for social and community engagement can significantly buffer the rate of cognitive decline.
Another factor that can hugely promote healthy cognitive aging is exercise and activity. There is a wealth of evidence supporting the positive impacts of aerobic exercise on mental wellness through mechanisms such as endorphin release, metabolic regulation, and the actions of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Regular aerobic exercise can improve metabolic efficiency, leading to increased energy levels and reductions in rates of metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Aerobic exercise has also been shown to improve memory and reduce hippocampal atrophy in individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting an important protective role (7).
While exercising has many associated benefits, it can also be a great way to get outside more. The importance of spending time outside is rooted in our fundamental biology, as many of the most important systems in our body are regulated in pulses oriented around the position of our sun in the sky. These are known as circadian cycles, also commonly referred to as our internal “biological clock”. Exposure to sunlight at different times of the day can help set the circadian cycles that regulate our gene expression and hormone levels. Proper regulation of these systems can significantly improve our sleep quality, increase overall energy levels, and promote healthy eating schedules. Spending time outdoors throughout the day can also mitigate many negative impacts of excessive screen time (2).
Did you know that doctors in Canada can now prescribe free passes to national parks for patients who might benefit from more time in nature? Learn more here.
Often when combating difficult mental health episodes or an acutely adverse event, humans naturally look for a potent solution. Too often, however, we seek pharmacological or chemical intervention. In the past years, rigorous scientific protocols have investigated the benefits of breathwork and meditation. This overarching strategy is known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), encompassing body scan meditation, breath awareness, yoga, and even walking meditation. Taking some time (5-20 minutes) to be calm and paying attention to your breath can help manage regulatory centers in the brain and promote positive re-wiring and firing of neurons in a coordinated way to promote mental health (8). MBSR and similar mindfulness practices can help us gain a more realistic understanding and acceptance of the present moment. This can also help alleviate feelings of anxiety by reducing repetitive negative thinking and increasing activity in the centers of the brain responsible for gratitude and appraisal. In addition, it has been shown that meditation can help reduce the stimulation of the fear center of the brain, the amygdala (9). By being mindful, paying attention to intrusive thoughts, and allowing them to pass without feeling extreme discomfort or physiological reactions, you can improve your natural responses to negative situations and recover more quickly from them (9). While learning about new tools to incorporate into your life can be overwhelming, perhaps taking a few minutes to think quietly and focus on your breath can help!
The onset of mental decline can be a scary thing, but we want to remind you that you are not alone. At Preventous, our goal is to do everything we can to help you combat this. We give the utmost importance to developing a strong sense of community where you can openly interact with your doctors and caregivers and rely on a strong support system. We strive to provide you with opportunities to stay active, optimize your nutrition, keep your brain engaged, and continue to grow and improve as an individual.
Dr. Rohan Bissoondath,