Mental health disorders are on the rise in India. According to a report published by Lancet Commission, 80% of the people with a mental and substance-abuse related disorders are not seeking medical treatment currently. A study conducted by WHO estimates that 6.5% of Indians suffer from one or the other form of mental illness such as depression and dementia. Sadly, the suicide rate in India is also one of the highest with 10.3 people for every 1 lakh taking their lives.
All these statistics reiterate the importance of mental health or brain health. With age, natural physiological changes cause the brain to shrink slightly, and hence affect various cognitive faculties as well as overall mental health. Fortunately, there are various ways to reverse or slow down this decline. Pursuing these requires a commitment on the part of the individual that his/her mental health is given equal importance as physical health.
To understand the ways of reversing mental decline, we need to understand the 6 pillars of mental health. Interestingly, all of them are lifestyle related. This gives hope to both ageing populations and healthcare providers that mental decline can be arrested and reversed with just a little awareness.
6 Key Factors that uphold Mental Health
- Physical Exercise and Movement: A sedentary lifestyle that lacks exercise or vigorous action is the primary enemy of mental health. Exercise ensures oxygen-rich blood is delivered to all areas of the brain, which helps retain cognitive faculties, memory, improve mood and the ability to think and learn. Cardiovascular exercises like jogging, slow running, brisk walking and spot exercising that break up a sweat are the best form of exercise. Such exercises boost the hippocampus area of the brain which improves memory and learning. Such exercise help reverse or prevent the outset of Alzheimer’s disease, the number one cause for dementia.
- Diet and Nutrition: Due to lifestyle, stress and pollution, cells in the brain like the rest of the body undergo oxidation, which is harmful. Such oxidation can be prevented by avoiding foods that contain unhealthy fats and ensuring a diet rich in fibre with an optimum mix of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats.
- Physical Ailments: Conditions such as high BP (hypertension), diabetes, obesity, depression, excessive smoking, alcohol abuse and drug abuse all increase the chances of dementia. In addition to the ailment itself, the medications taken for them can also damage groups of brain cells. That is why, it’s important to keep these conditions in check, manage stress better, and stop substance abuse altogether.
- Sleep and Rest: Relaxation, rest, entertainment and sleep are extremely critical for good mental health. They help you manage stress better, improve mood, boost the immune system and maintain cognitive faculties well into old age. They also prevent the build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid-plaque in the arteries of the brain, known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. It also helps maintain testosterone levels which are important for bone health.
- Mental use and exercise: Like the muscles of the body, the muscles of the brain also atrophy when they are not used regularly. As you age, it’s important to learn new things, enjoy a performing art or hobby, play mental games like quizzes, crosswords, card games, and participate in activities that challenge your understanding, intelligence or learn ability.
- Social & Community interactions: Right from the days of hunter-gatherers to modern man, much of the evolution of the human brain has been enabled by social interaction more than any other factor. The complexities involved in maintaining a social order, social etiquette, respecting laws and regulations of the land and voicing one’s opinion all have a positive effect on one’s cognitive faculties. Further, frequent social interaction is known to improve mood at any age and prevent depression or dementia in old age.
What seniors should do to maintain Mental Health
Frequent Mental Health Screening with advancing age is unfortunately not given the same importance as physical health screening. While indifference is one reason, the lack of a clear structure around mental health screenings has also been a deterrent. However, in recent years, medical regulatory agencies and top hospitals in the US have created such a framework which is being replicated or improvised worldwide.
Mental Health screening covers 6 broad areas with a finite number of tests in each of them:
- Mental health, cognitive health, and substance use
- Safety and functional ability
- Physical health
- Cancer screening
- Medications for prevention
Good Mental Health is necessary for a superior quality of life, at any age. However, in old age, it becomes even more critical, in order to beat the effects of age-related shrinkage of brain, lifestyle choices and physical as well as social environment we live in.