Written by Dr. Olivia Rose, ND
WATCH VIDEO: Healthy Aging and Mental Health
According to the World Health Organization, healthy aging includes maintaining a state of physical, mental, and social well-being that can allow you thrive well into your golden years.1 However, when discussing health and chronic disease in people over the age of 50, mental health is often left out of the discussion. Mental health conditions are quite common in the aging population with over 20% of seniors feeling low mood;2 and when long-term care homes and hospitals are taken into consideration, that number doubles to approximately 40%.2
Although mental illness is common later in life, it does not have to be part of the aging process. Natural and medical treatments are available to support you, and in many cases, your mental well-being can be optimized by implementing sound nutritional, supplementation, and lifestyle strategies.
Improving mental health through lifestyle changes
Meditation has become quite a popular practice for achieving mental wellness in the last few years and is commonly used as a treatment for stress and for general improvements in health. Mindfulness practices teach individuals how to become more present and aware which allows for more control in stressful events.4 In a systematic review of 47 studies with 3515 participants, meditation programs were found to be beneficial for individuals feeling overwhelmed and low mood after 8 weeks of participation.5
Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed, you can incorporate breathing techniques that can lower the perception of stress in the body. When you breathe in deeply, it allows your body to relax, and for your heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure to decrease.6 Learning a deep breathing sequence is a simple and affordable practice to develop to bring about a state of calm during a stressful time.
Exercise is well known for its ability to improve both mental and physical health in the general population. However, physical activity is often avoided in older populations due to decreased access to older adult-specific programming, mobility and accessibility issues and a perceived fear of injury. However, when performed consistently, carefully and with proper guidance, exercise programs can have many benefits. According to a 2019 review of 5 studies, physical activity can improve mental well-being in older adults.7 The review assessed the impacts of exercise on mental health in individuals over the age of 60 with no diagnosed illnesses and found that exercise improved sleep quality and reduced the incidence of low mood.7
Improving mental health through nutrition
Proper nutrition is imperative for mental health and wellness.8 The food that you consume throughout the day will directly impact the function and health of your brain and ultimately your mood. In a study assessing the role of antioxidant-rich foods, researchers found that people feeling overwhelmed and low mood had significantly lower levels of vitamins A, C, and E in comparison to healthy controls.9 When these participants supplemented with vitamins for 6 weeks, there was a significant reduction feeling overwhelmed and low mood. 9
With age, the absorption of nutrients decreases. Therefore, the ability to take in and utilize nutrients is less efficient in older individuals.10 Additionally, with age, your metabolism slows and food intake requirements often decrease.10 The interaction between medications and nutrients is also an important consideration in a population with an increased reliance on medications.10 Several drugs can interact with nutrients, such as B vitamins, which will further increase the requirements for these nutrients.10 With a decreased intake of food, paired with an increased need for nutrients, it is important that seniors have a nutrient-dense diet or that they take supplements to optimize nutrient intake.10
The way you choose to consume your meals is also important. When eating, it is best to be in a calm eating environment so that the body can properly digest food. If you are in a stressful environment while eating, your body cannot properly release digestive enzymes and stomach acid to break down the food into its nutritional components which will further limit absorption. Therefore, before eating, it is important to take some deep breaths, think about the food you are about to consume and chew each morsel really well.
Improving mental health through supplementation
Due to the reduced nutrient absorption that can occur after the age 50, some nutrients may need to be supplemented to obtain adequate levels.
For example, Vitamin D absorption decreases with age, a person aged 70 makes on average 25% of the vitamin D that a 20-year old makes when exposed to the same amount of sunlight.11 This is especially true for individuals with increased levels of melanin in the skin, which decreases the synthesis and absorption of vitamin D from the sun.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another important nutrient to consider supplementing in this population. The omega-3 fatty acids, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are needed for brain development and function. Older adults who have a lower level of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, display accelerated aging of the brain and vascular patterns associated with cognitive impairment.12 Additionally, supplementation with at least of 180 mg EPA and 120 mg of DHA omega-3 fatty acids may help support cognitive health13 Although omega-3 fatty acids can be found in dietary sources such as seafood and sea vegetables, the amount needed to see changes in mental health are difficult to obtain from food alone.
When you are over the age of 50 there may be increased barriers to maintaining sound mental health; however, there are many lifestyle and nutritional strategies, which can be implemented to achieve mental wellness as you enter this stage of life.
- World Health Organization (1948). Constitution of the World Health Organization. Available at: http://www.who.int/governance/eb/who_constitution_en.pdf. Accessed May 31, 2021
- Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health. Depression in Older Adults. https://ccsmh.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ccsmh_depressionBooklet.pdf. Accessed May 31, 2021.
- American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry (2008). Geriatrics and mental health—the facts. Available at: http://www.aagponline.org/prof/facts_mh.asp Accessed May 31, 2021
- Lemay V, Hoolahan J, Buchanan A. Impact of a yoga and meditation intervention on students' stress and anxiety levels. American journal of pharmaceutical education. 2019 Jun 1;83(5).
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine. 2014 Mar 1;174(3):357-68.
- Health Link, BC. Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/uz2255#:~:text=Deep%20breathing%20is%20one%20of,this%20message%20to%20your%20body. Accessed May 31, 2021.
- Rao TS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KJ. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian journal of psychiatry. 2008 Apr;50(2):77.
- Kadariya S, Gautam R, Aro AR. Physical activity, mental health, and wellbeing among older adults in South and Southeast Asia: a scoping review. BioMed research international. 2019 Nov 17;2019.
- Gautam M, Agrawal M, Gautam M, Sharma P, Gautam AS, Gautam S. Role of antioxidants in generalised anxiety disorder and depression. Indian journal of psychiatry. 2012 Jul;54(3):244.
- Tucker K. Nutrition concerns for aging populations. In Providing Healthy safe foods as we age. Workshop summary 2010 (pp. 87-108)
- Janz T, Pearson C. Vitamin D blood levels of Canadians. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82624-x. Accessed June 15, 2020 at: https://www.150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624- x/2013001/article/11727-eng.htm
- Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, Au R, Himali JJ, Debette S, Pikula A, DeCarli C, Wolf PA, Vasan RS, Robins SJ. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology. 2012 Feb 28;78(9):658-64.
- Government of Canada. Product information. Accessed on June 18th, 2021 at https://health-products.canada.ca/lnhpd-bdpsnh/info.do?licence=80045582