Mental Health Month
May is Mental Health Month, and it’s a good time to take stock of our “mental hygiene” habits. According to the National Council on Aging, a quarter of seniors experience mental illness at some point, but eldercare providers say depression, anxiety, and other conditions are not an inevitable part of the aging process. Here are some expert recommendations for good mental (and physical) health.
Have a chat with your pharmacist
Medication side effects and interactions can sometimes mimic mental illness symptoms. When you get a new prescription filled, ask your pharmacist how it might interact with other medicines you take or affect your mood, sleep patterns, and memory. If you have problems with a new drug, talk to your doctor about other options.
Pay attention to physical indicators of mental health
Our minds play a big role in our overall health, and what seem like purely physical problems may have a mental-health component, too. Possible mental-health flags include:
- Insomnia.Chronic sleeplessness can be both a cause and an effect of anxiety and depression. See your doctor if you’ve had trouble sleeping for more than a couple of weeks.
- Racing or irregular heartbeat. A severe anxiety attack may so closely resemble a heart attack that it can take a trip to the ER to sort it out. Anxiety feeds on itself — once someone has had a panic attack, they tend to worry constantly about another attack — so it’s important to treat it properly. Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy can help.
- Lack of appetite. Depression and eating disorders can manifest as a reduced or absent desire to eat. If your appetite vanishes, talk to your doctor.
- Memory problems. For virtually everyone over 40, memory problems raise the specter of dementia. A foggy memory or difficulty concentrating can also signal depression or the aftermath of a severe panic attack. The “loss” of chunks of time may indicate a substance abuse problem. Finding and treating the cause of impaired memory is key, because depression is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.
- Incontinence. Surprised? Incontinence isn’t a mental illness symptom, but the mind power of biofeedback can treat it. That’s important because incontinence is a leading reason seniors move out of their homes, which can trigger depression. Effective incontinence treatments help people remain independent longer.
DIY mental health “exercises”
Choices we make daily can boost our mental health. Regular exercise lowers the risk of dementia, lessens the effects of depression, and can battle insomnia. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to take that daily walk, consider getting a dog or meeting with friends so you can stroll together. In addition:
- Stay connected. Chat with family, go out with friends, and visit the local senior center to improve your mood. If you’re spiritual, religious services and congregational social life can provide a supportive social network, too.
- Branch out. Volunteer work, a hobby you love, and learning new things can keep your mind sharp and your mood bright.
- Play games. Teach your grandkids or neighbors to play the card and board games that were popular when you were their age, and let them teach you how to play Angry Birds. Online video gaming can sharpen your reflexes sharp while you connect with family and friends. When you’re alone, don’t stick to solitaire. AARP offers a suite of brain games designed to strengthen your mental powers.
A healthy mind is part of a healthier body, so be bold about speaking up if you have mental health concerns or questions. Doctors have many effective treatments available, and the social judgments of yesteryear are fading as researchers reveal the biological underpinnings of mental health. For more information, contact the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the National Council on Aging.