Keep sharp for vitality in later life

Prioritising the mental health needs of older adults as a society is imperative, writes Professor Henry Brodaty.

As we age, it’s common to hear about the challenges associated with mental health decline. However, having spent decades immersed in the study and practice of health and ageing, I’ve come to appreciate the multifaceted nature of this journey.

Contrary to prevailing beliefs, research suggests that happiness tends to increase with age. Yet, there are indeed hurdles to overcome, particularly for those facing physical ailments, cognitive decline or social isolation.

Vulnerabilities are accentuated among individuals in residential care or grappling with dementia. Another group at risk are caregivers who shoulder great stress while supporting their loved ones. Issues such as alcohol and drug abuse can exacerbate mental health concerns among older adults.

Addressing these challenges demands a holistic approach to mental wellbeing in later life. Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or swimming plus strength training, nurtures physical health, improves bone and muscle strength, reduces risks of falls, reduces risk of dementia and uplifts mood.

Equally crucial is the maintenance of social connections and having a confidante to counteract feelings of loneliness and isolation. Whether through community engagement, volunteering, or pursuing hobbies, fostering meaningful connections serves as a cornerstone for mental resilience.

Professor Henry Brodaty

However, one aspect often overlooked in discussions about mental health in ageing is cognitive stimulation. Just as our bodies benefit from physical exercise, our minds thrive on mental challenges and stimulation.

Engaging in lifelong learning, whether through formal education, reading, or pursuing new hobbies, can help keep the brain sharp and agile. Additionally, activities specifically designed to stimulate cognitive function, such as cognitive training programs, offer valuable opportunities to maintain and even improve cognitive abilities.

Moreover, addressing sensory impairments, such as hearing or vision loss, is crucial for preserving cognitive function. Studies have shown that untreated sensory impairments can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults. Therefore, seeking appropriate interventions and accommodations to address these impairments is essential for maintaining overall cognitive vitality.

As we reconsider our perceptions of ageing and mental health, it’s vital to recognise the inherent opportunities for growth, resilience, and fulfilment in later life. Prioritising the mental health needs of older adults as a society is imperative. Providing the necessary support and resources ensures that individuals can navigate the challenges of ageing with dignity and resilience. By embracing a comprehensive approach to mental wellbeing, we can transform the narrative surrounding ageing from one of decline to one of vitality, purpose, and resilience.

In this pursuit, I am honoured to serve as a member of the advisory committee for the Australian Mental Health Prize. This prestigious prize seeks to recognise individuals and organisations making significant contributions to mental health in Australia. Nominations for this award are now open, offering an opportunity to celebrate and support those who tirelessly work to improve mental health outcomes across the country. More information on the nomination process can be found on the Australian Mental Health Prize webpage.

Professor Henry Brodaty – an authority in ageing and dementia – holds the position of Scientia Professor of Ageing and Mental Health at the UNSW Sydney and serves as the co-director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing. He is also a senior psychogeriatrician in the Older People’s Mental Health Service at Prince of Wales Hospital

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