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How to overcome poor mental health in older adults

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A significant number of older adults may be experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But there are some simple steps that individuals can take to promote their mental wellbeing.

It is difficult to determine the precise number of older adults in the UK who are affected by mental health issues, as mental health problems can be difficult to identify and may not always be reported or diagnosed. 

However, around 22% of men and 28% of women over the age of 65 experience depression or anxiety. This figure may be higher among older adults who are living in institutional care settings, such as nursing homes.

Five signs that elderly people might be struggling with poor mental health 

There are many potential reasons why older adults in the UK may experience mental health problems. Some of the most common factors that can contribute to mental health issues in older adults include: 

  • Physical health problems: Chronic physical health problems or disabilities can lead to mental health problems, as they can cause pain, discomfort, and a sense of loss of control.
  • Social isolation: Older adults may experience social isolation due to the loss of loved ones, reduced mobility, or other factors. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
  • Loss and grief: The loss of loved ones and other life changes, such as retirement or moving to a new location, can be difficult for older adults and can lead to grief and depression.
  • Stress: Older adults may experience stress due to financial concerns, caregiving responsibilities, or other challenges.
  • Dementia: Dementia is a common mental health problem among older adults, and it can cause a range of cognitive and behavioural symptoms.

Maintaining your mental health

However, there are steps that elderly individuals can take to promote their mental well-being.

Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Stay connected with loved ones: Social connections are important for mental health at any age. Elderly individuals should make an effort to stay in touch with friends and family, whether through in-person visits, phone calls, or video chats.
  2. Engage in activities that bring joy: It’s important to find activities that bring happiness and purpose, whether that’s gardening, reading, volunteering, or spending time with pets.
  3. Seek professional help if needed: It’s okay to seek help from a mental health professional if feelings of sadness, loneliness, or other mental health concerns persist. A therapist or counsellor can provide support and coping strategies to help manage difficult emotions.
  4. Take care of physical health: Physical health and mental health are closely linked. Elderly individuals should make sure to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep to promote overall well-being.
  5. Get outside: Spending time outdoors, even in the winter months, can help improve mood and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Spending time in areas with abundant green space and low air pollution levels has been shown to have a positive impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. Being in green spaces with clean air can also improve cardiovascular health, boost the immune system, and even aid in recovery from illnesses or injuries. Exposure to nature can also improve cognitive function, boost creativity, and may even help with depression and anxiety 

By taking care of their mental health, elderly individuals can improve their quality of life and enjoy their golden years to the fullest. It’s important to remember that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and self-care.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist, comments: “The festive cheer has worn off, it’s cold and wet outside,  and the short days are relentlessly cold and dark.  This can be a perfect storm for depression, especially in older people for whom health problems and lack of mobility often mean getting out and about at this time of year is much harder. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation – even depression.  

“Connection is so important during this time as is getting as much natural daylight as possible, especially first thing in the morning.  If you know of someone who might be struggling on this day, please reach out and offer your support and company.  Even a smile and a brief chat can go a long way to raising someone’s spirits if they are feeling down and it is important that we make time to do it.” 

Research

UK body calls for more ageing research backing

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The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is calling for more public backing in the UK for research to help people stay healthier for longer, as an alternative to charities that support research on diseases.

The greatest risk factor for disease is ageing, but we have very little charitable support for research into how to slow ageing, the organisation warns.

Many diseases such as cancers and heart disease tragically shorten lives far too early, or like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, destroy quality of life for patients and carers. There is understandably huge public charitable support for more research. However, the greatest risk factor for those diseases, and even infectious diseases like COVID, is ageing.

Yet in comparison there is currently very little support for research to understand how we can slow ageing to prevent disease. This approach may be more productive in the long term to fight disease. Furthermore, keeping people healthier for longer, or avoiding chronic diseases all together, would be the most favourable outcome.

The UK population is ageing fast, putting pressure on the NHS and the economy. Despite this pressing problem all around us, there is no accessible way for people to support research into ageing in the UK. The BSRA aims to change that.

With a very small budget and almost completely run by volunteers, the BSRA has successfully funded several small research projects but progress needs to be accelerated. More funding is needed because it takes years to see the effects of ageing, so studies are long. Also ageing affects individuals in different ways, meaning that large numbers of people must be studied to make firm conclusions.

Therefore, there is an urgency to get studies funded and the BSRA has decided to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to boost research into ageing. Initially, the Society aims to fund a series of one year research projects at the Masters degree level at universities across the UK and with plans to raise much more in the future to support longer and more ambitious projects that will impact the lives of the general public.

Chair of the BSRA, Prof David Weinkove from Durham University, says “The time is now to really get behind research into the biology of ageing. We have fantastic researchers across the country, but they are held back by a lack of funding. Evidence-based research is needed to understand how we people can stay healthier for longer, and to then we must make that knowledge available to as many people as possible”.

Dr Jed Lye says “This is a great opportunity for the public to help, for corporations to contribute, or philanthropists wanting a large impact with a relatively small donation; every £20,000 we raise can fund an entire year of research into ageing and longevity, and gets a budding scientist their research qualification.”

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Research

Older adults less active in society post-pandemic, finds study

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A new study of 7,000 people age 55-plus has found they’re staying at home more and skipping restaurants, the gym and other ‘third places’, since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Years after the US began to slowly emerge from mandatory Covid-19 lockdowns, more than half of older adults still spend more time at home and less time socialising in public spaces than they did pre-pandemic, according to new University of Colorado Boulder research. 

Participants cited fear of infection and “more uncomfortable and hostile” social dynamics as key reasons for their retreat from civic life.

“The pandemic is not over for a lot of folks,” said Jessica Finlay, an assistant professor of geography whose findings are revealed in a series of new papers.

“Some people feel left behind.”

The study comes amid what the U.S. Surgeon General recently called an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in which older adults— especially those who are immune compromised or have disabilities— are particularly vulnerable.

“We found that the pandemic fundamentally altered neighbourhoods, communities and everyday routines among aging Americans and these changes have long-term consequences for their physical, mental, social and cognitive health,” said Finlay.

‘I just can’t go back’

As a health geographer and environmental gerontologist, Finlay studies how social and built environments impact health as we age.

In March 2020 as restaurants, gyms, grocery stores and other gathering places shuttered amid shelter-in-place orders, she immediately wondered what the lasting impacts would be.

Shortly thereafter, she launched the Covid-19 Coping Study with University of Michigan epidemiologist Lindsay Kobayashi. They began their research with a baseline and monthly survey. Since then, nearly 7,000 people over age 55 from all 50 states have participated.

The researchers check in annually, asking open-ended questions about how neighborhouds and relationships have changed, how people spend their time, opinions and experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their physical and mental health.

“We’ve been in the field for some incredibly pivotal moments,” said Finlay, noting that surveys went out shortly after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 and again after the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Collectively, the results paint a troubling picture in which a substantial portion of the older population remains isolated even after others have moved on.

In one paper published in February in the journal Wellbeing, Space and Society, 60 per cent of respondents said they spend more time in their home while 75 per cent said they dine out less. Some 62 per cent said they visit cultural and arts venues less, and more than half said they attend church or the gym less than before the pandemic.

While that survey was taken two years ago, the most recent survey taken in spring 2023 showed similar trends, with more than half of respondents still reporting that their socialisation and entertainment routines were different than they were pre-pandemic.

In another paper titled “I just can’t go back,” 80 per cent of respondents reported that there are some places they are reluctant to visit in person anymore.

“The thought of going inside a gym with lots of people breathing heavily and sweating is not something I can see myself ever doing again,” said one 72-year-old male.

Those who said they still go to public places like grocery stores reported that they ducked in and out quickly and skipped casual chitchat.

“It’s been tough,” said one 68-year-old female.

“You don’t stop and talk to people anymore.”

Many respondents reported that they were afraid of getting infected with a virus or infecting young or immune-compromised loved ones, and said they felt “irresponsible” for being around a lot of people.

Some reported getting dirty looks or rude comments when wearing masks or asking others to keep their distance— interpersonal exchanges that reinforced their inclination to stay home.

Revitalising human connection

The news is not all bad, stresses Finlay.

At least 10 per cent of older adults report exercising outdoors more frequently since the pandemic, and a small but vocal minority said that their worlds had actually opened up, as more meetings, concerts and classes became available online.

Still, Finlay worries that the loss of spontaneous interactions in what sociologists call “third places” could have serious health consequences.

Previous research shows that a lack of social connection can increase risk of premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exacerbate mental illness and dementia.

“For some older adults who live alone, that brief, unplanned exchange with the butcher or the cashier may be the only friendly smile they see in the day, and they have lost that,” Finlay said.

Societal health is also at risk.

“It is increasingly rare for Americans with differing sociopolitical perspectives to collectively hang out and respectfully converse,” she writes.

Finlay hopes that her work can encourage policymakers to create spaces more amenable to people of all ages who are now more cautious about getting sick – things like outdoor dining spaces, ventilated concert halls or masked or hybrid events.

She also hopes that people will give those still wearing masks or keeping distance some grace.

“It is a privilege to be able to ‘just get over’ the pandemic and many people, for a multitude of reasons, just don’t have that privilege. The world looks different to them now,” she said.

“How can we make it easier for them to re-engage?”

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Wellness

Lack of sleep can make you feel 10 years older, study finds

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Feeling sleepy can make you feel ten years older, according to researchers at Stockholm University, who have discovered that sleep may hold the secret to staying young at heart. 

Do you ever find yourself longing for the energy and vitality of your younger years? Feeling young is not just a matter of perception – it is actually related to objective health outcomes.

Previous studies have shown that feeling younger than one’s actual age is associated with longer, healthier lives. There is even support for subjective age to predict actual brain age, with those feeling younger having younger brains.

“Given that sleep is essential for brain function and overall well-being, we decided to test whether sleep holds any secrets to preserving a youthful sense of age,” says Leonie Balter, researcher at the Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, who worked on the study, which is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the first study, 429 individuals aged 18 to 70 were asked how old they felt, how many days in the past month they had not gotten enough sleep, and how sleepy they were. It turned out that for each night with insufficient sleep in the past month, participants felt on average 0.23 years older.

In a second study, the researchers tested whether it was indeed the lack of sleep causing participants to feel older. They conducted an experimental sleep restriction study involving 186 participants aged 18 to 46. Participants restricted their sleep for two nights –only four hours in bed each night – and another time slept sufficiently for two nights, with nine hours in bed each night.

After sleep restriction, participants felt on average 4.4 years older compared to when having enjoyed sufficient sleep. The effects of sleep on subjective age appeared to be related to how sleepy they felt. Feeling extremely alert was related to feeling 4 years younger than one’s actual age, while extreme sleepiness was related to feeling 6 years older than one’s actual age.

“This means that going from feeling alert to sleepy added a striking 10 years to how old one felt,” says Leonie Balter, who states that the implications for our daily lives are clear.

“Safeguarding our sleep is crucial for maintaining a youthful feeling. This, in turn, may promote a more active lifestyle and encourage behaviours that promote health, as both feeling young and alert are important for our motivation to be active.”

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