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New Report Finds Links Between 'Mental Well-Being' and Brain Health

Positivity and optimism might protect against cognitive decline, reports AARP's Global Council on Brain Health

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Want to boost your brain health? Try getting happy, suggests a new report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, which looks at how mental well-being — comprised of things such as your mood or outlook — can affect aspects of cognition as varied as memory and decision-making.

The report from the council — a working group of scientists, doctors, scholars and policy experts, among others — pulls together previously published research into how mental well-being may change with age and how, in turn, such changes may affect things like your ability to reason, to cope with challenge or even to help fend off dementia in later years. One interesting point, for instance, is how feeling you have a purpose in life might reduce your risk of future dementia by up to 20 percent. 

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Sarah Lock, the council's executive director, says the group’s new work was motivated in part by earlier AARP research showing that 96 percent of adults think that managing stress well is important to maintain their brain health, but only 43 percent are able to manage stress effectively. Knowing that anxiety and depression are often linked with cognitive decline, the council decided to examine the current evidence on whether adults who are able to cope better with stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression are able to reduce their risks for cognitive decline as they age.  

Along with outlining seven key elements of mental well-being — including things like self-acceptance, vitality, positive relationships, purpose in life and optimism — the report stipulates that “most of these elements can be shaped by changing your own attitudes and behaviors.”

Older people may even have some advantages in doing so, given how more life experience tends to improve many mental well-being factors, such as self-confidence, even as aging presents other challenges, the group notes. “Despite feelings of loss that often occur as people age, getting older does not necessarily mean people are less happy. In fact, on average, the opposite is true. Numerous studies have found that people report greater mental well-being as they age past their mid-50s into the later stages of their lives.”

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To boost well-being, the council offers some recommendations related to things such as mood and outlook: learning to come to peace with your past decisions, acknowledging what you can’t change and learning to quiet negative, excessive thoughts, perhaps through something like meditation. 

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The group also suggests monitoring multiple medications. “For example, medications can interact to amplify their side effects, including sleep problems, mental grogginess, anxiety, bouts of depression and mood instability,” according to the report. “This can especially be true if you get medications from multiple health care providers. It’s important to regularly discuss your medications — including vitamins and herbal supplements — with a health care provider who knows you well.”

But most of their suggestions amount to healthy lifestyle tips, and that’s no mistake, Lock says. “We know that engaging in brain-healthy lifestyle choices boosts cognitive health and that people who choose to integrate more brain-healthy activities in their lives also report greater mental well-being and better cognitive functioning.” 

Among the tips from the report: 

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1.   Look for activities you enjoy. Regularly doing something that makes you feel good, as simple as it sounds, is possibly the most important things you could do — today! — for your mental well-being. So take that hike, splurge on your knitting supplies, or sign up for a choir or singing group.

2.   Seek out meaningful connections with others in your community. Get to know your neighbors. The 2018 AARP "Brain Health and Mental Well-Being" Survey found that the more often adults 50 and older socialized, the higher their mental well-being scores were. 

3.    Become a regular volunteer in the community. Those who volunteer tend to have less anxiety, depression, loneliness and social isolation, as well as a sense of purpose in life. The 2018 AARP survey found that adults 50 or older who volunteer at least once a year have higher mental well-being scores than those who don’t volunteer. 

4.   Aim to get enough high-quality sleep. To that end, maintain a regular schedule where your sleep/wake hours do not fluctuate, and avoid watching TV in bed. Also stay away from all digital screens before bedtime. Studies have found that the LED light emitted by digital screens may prevent the brain from releasing the sleep hormone melatonin. (For more tips on getting good sleep, see the GCBH's “Brain Sleep Connection Report").

5.   Eat healthy foods. Experiment with different fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins to create a healthy diet. The 2018 AARP survey found that men and women age 50 and over who reported eating more nutritious and well-balanced meals also had higher mental well-being scores than those who said they rarely ate nutritious meals. (For detailed information on nutrition and brain health, see the GCBH's “Brain Food" report.)

6.   Find opportunities to exercise, particularly outdoors. Explore green spaces in your neighborhood and community, including state and national parks. Also, try gardening. Digging in the dirt can be a great way to relieve stress, get exercise and promote mental well-being.

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