Mental Well-Being and Brain Health

All of us want to boost our brain health as we age, and there may be a new solution—Get happy! A 2018 report published by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health examined mental well-being (which is made up of things like your mood and your outlook) and its effect on a wide variety of cognitive abilities, such as decision-making and memory. 

In this report, the Council (which is comprised of doctors, scientists, policy experts and scholars, among others) looks at prior research to determine how age-related changes in mental well-being can affect our ability to reason, deal with challenges, or even stave off dementia as we age. One interesting example is that when a person feels like they have a purpose in life, their risk of later dementia may be reduced by up to 20 percent.

"96% of adults believe that good stress management is vital to maintaining brain health, only 43% feel that they effectively manage stress"

According to Executive Director Sarah Lock, the idea for this work came from previous research by AARP that suggested that even though 96% of adults believe that good stress management is vital to maintaining brain health, only 43% feel that they effectively manage stress. Since we know that both depression and anxiety have been linked to declines in cognitive function, the Council made the decision to look at existing evidence on how people who have the ability to cope with anxiety, stress and depression could potentially lower their risk of cognitive decline later in life.

The report outlined what it called “seven key elements of mental well-being,” which included elements like vitality, self-acceptance, purpose in life, positive relationships and optimism, suggesting that most of these things can be bolstered by changing our own behaviors and attitudes.

Older adults might even be better able to make these changes, as we know that more life experience is related to improvements in factors of mental well-being, like self-confidence, even though we do tend to face other challenges as we age. The report notes that even though people often experience feelings of loss as they age, we don’t necessarily become less happy as we get older. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. Extensive research has shown that older adults report improved mental well-being as they move through their 50s and into the later years of their lives.

To bolster well-being, the report provides some recommendations designed to improve outlook and mood: 

  • Learn to make peace with your past.
  • Accept the things that you cannot change.
  • Learn to put a stop to continuous negative thoughts, using techniques like meditation.

Another recommendation from the Council is to keep an eye on interactions that can come from taking more than one medication at a time. Talk to your doctor about all of your medications, including any vitamins and other supplements, and be mindful of any symptoms such as:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • unstable mood
  • sleep issues
  • “brain fog” or mental sluggishness

The rest of the recommendations from the report revolve around living a healthy lifestyle. That’s because making choices that are good for your brain will boost your cognitive and mental health.

Some of the report’s top tips include:

  1. Participate in activities that make you happy.
    When you make an effort to do something you enjoy on a regular basis, your overall mental well-being benefits. So, go ahead – sign up for that sailing class, learn to skydive, volunteer at your grandchild’s school or join a foodie group.

  2. Build a social network.
    The more social interaction you have, the better your mental well-being will be. So, get to know your neighbors, join a club, visit family members and make new friends.

  3. Give back.
    People who volunteer on a regular basis generally have less depression, anxiety, social isolation and loneliness, plus a greater sense of purpose. 

  4. Get enough sleep.
    Try to set (and keep!) a regular sleep schedule. Don’t watch TV in bed, and steer clear of all digital screens for at least an hour before bedtime. 

  5. Eat well.
    Those who eat a balanced, nutritious diet tend to report higher mental well-being than those who eat a lot of processed foods. Try experimenting with new and exciting combinations of fruits, veggies, lean proteins and whole grains to create a healthy diet that works for you.

  6. Get active, especially outside.
    Spend some time exploring parks and other green spaces around your neighborhood and surrounding areas. Gardening is another great stress-reliever that doubles as exercise!