Just like your physical body changes as you get older, so do your mental health needs. Think about it: What you stressed about in your 20s likely won't be the same issues causing you concern in your 60s, which is why it's important to consider the connection between aging and mental health.
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Yep, as you get older, you'll find yourself facing new and unfamiliar challenges to your emotional wellbeing. Indeed, 1 in 4 older adults has a mental health problem, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
While you can't control all the physical, psychological and social transitions that occur with age, learning to navigate them in healthy ways is key to your emotional health.
Here, Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast, explains the age-related challenges that older people encounter and shares tips for maintaining good mental health.
If you're experiencing emotional distress and feel like harming yourself, call your doctor immediately.
While everybody's experience with aging and mental health is unique, there are some common changes that occur with growing older that can take a toll on your psychological and emotional wellbeing. Here are a few:
1. Physical Health Issues
As you get older, your body goes through natural shifts (think: creakier joints and looser skin). Some of these changes can cause big disruptions to your daily life. For example, menopause causes fluctuations in hormone levels that can affect you physically and emotionally with symptoms like mood swings and hot flashes, per the Office on Women's Health (OASH).
Aging also brings a greater likelihood of developing chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease or mobility issues.
Having health problems can be stressful — and not only that, but depending on the issue, you may also experience pain, reduced quality of life or loss of independence, Dr. Saltz says. These things can majorly affect mental health and contribute to anxiety and depression, she adds.
While many older adults look forward to taking it easier after a lifetime of hard work, retirement is a big life change that can come with unexpected challenges.
"Some people feel at loose ends and less social, and this can affect their mood," Dr. Saltz says. "Also, a ton of new unstructured time with your partner sometimes heightens irritability and stresses the relationship, which can impact mental health," she adds.
Some people find themselves feeling lonelier and more isolated from their friends, family and community as they get older. That may be in part because the ratio of older folks living alone rises with advancing age. In fact, approximately half of people assigned female at birth ages 75 and older live alone, per the APA.
If you have few people with whom you can really share your feelings and trust, you're likely to feel lonely, which can lead to both anxiety and depression, Dr. Saltz says.
4. Empty Nest Syndrome
Many older adults feel sad or lonely when their kids grow up and move out, i.e., "fly the nest."
Empty nest syndrome is particularly painful for those who've crafted their identity around being a parent, Dr. Saltz says. This experience of loss can negatively affect one's mental health and lead to a depressed mood.
5. Being a Caretaker to an Elderly Family Member
While your adult children may have flown the coop, sometimes you might find yourself in a different caretaker role later in life: caring for a parent or other loved one. As a family caregiver, you may feel overburdened by the amount of responsibility, which can create psychological or physical strain.
"Caretaker burnout is a known phenomenon that causes constant high-level stress that often leads to depression," Dr. Saltz says.
How to Support Your Mental Health as You Age
The following strategies can help you safeguard and support your mental health against the transitions and challenges of aging.
1. Prioritize Physical Activity
"Research shows that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times per week improves mood and reduces anxiety," Dr. Saltz says.
What's more, staying physically fit can also help you preserve your cognitive function, reduce your risk for health problems and maintain your independence, to name just a few of the benefits of exercise, per the APA.
2. Eat a Nutrient-Rich Diet
Packing your plate with nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables is vital for maintaining good mental health at any age. In fact, not getting enough of certain vitamins can negatively affect your mental wellbeing.
For example, vitamin D deficiency is connected with mood changes and depression, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Similarly, insufficient B vitamins and folate may be related to depressed mood as well, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Get Quality Sleep
Lack of sleep can harm your mood over time, contributing to increased irritability and anxiety, Dr. Saltz says.
Aim to catch between seven and nine hours of shut-eye per night for optimal mental and physical health, she says.
4. Seek Professional Help
While a fifth of people over 55 have a mental disorder, fewer than 3 percent of older adults pursue professional help for their mental health problems, according to the APA.
If your anxiety or depression interferes with your daily life, it's important to seek treatment early before your issue becomes unmanageable, Dr. Saltz says.
This is especially crucial because people with mental health problems who don't utilize professional resources tend to fare worse overall. Untreated mental disorders are linked to a greater risk of disability and illness, as well as a lower quality of life, per the APA.
5. Stay Connected
Maintaining relationships and having social support is helpful for improving mood and reducing anxiety, Dr. Saltz says. Try scheduling weekly time with family and friends and/or expanding your social network by volunteering or joining a club.
6. Do Things You Enjoy
When you were younger, you may not have had enough time to devote to the activities and hobbies you love. That's why getting older presents an amazing opportunity to do the things you always wanted.
Making time for engaging in play, finding joy, relaxing and practicing self-care is valuable for promoting feelings of happiness, decreasing stress and living a well-balanced life, Dr. Saltz says.
7. Use Community Resources
When it comes to aging and mental health, issues like living alone and loss of independence can take a toll on your emotional state. But there are plenty of free and low-cost community-based resources that can aid in these areas and help you stay independent in older age, according to the OASH.
Don’t know where to start? Check out USAging to find aging resources in your local community.
- American Psychological Association: “Older Adults’ Health And Age-Related Changes: Reality Versus Myth”
- Office on Women’s Health: “Good mental health at every age”
- American Psychological Association: “Growing Mental and Behavioral Health Concerns Facing Older Americans”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Vitamin D Deficiency”
- Mayo Clinic: “Vitamin B-12 and depression: Are they related?”
- Mayo Clinic: "Depression (major depressive disorder)"