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Seniors can target mental health, cognition issues

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. >> With each passing year, we all experience predictable physical changes. More gray hair. Slower reflexes. A new facial wrinkle or three.

But, for many, aging also comes with mental health and cognition challenges.

Dr. Olivia Okereke — a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School — recently spoke about how folks can maintain mental health and cognitive abilities in their later years.

“There is a lot of misinformation and continued stigma out there about mental illness,” said community health advocate Michele Kessler.

Okereke is focused on identifying the mental, emotional and cognitive risk factors seniors face, as well as strategies for mitigating those risks.

“We want to optimize brain health — and prevent depression,” she explained.

To accomplish this, she had several suggestions, which numerous studies have suggested as the best ways to protect an aging brain:

>> Follow a heart healthy diet: This means at least five servings daily of fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as whole grains, raw nuts and lean proteins (fish, turkey and chicken — but little to no red meat), and avoiding foods that are fatty, fried, processed or high in sugar.

In other words, the renowned Mediterranean diet.

“In the studies we’ve done, we’ve found that those who follow a Mediterranean diet are 50 percent more likely to age healthfully,” said Okereke.

She also stressed the brain-protecting benefits of eating omega-3-rich foods, which include salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed oil and chia seeds.

“One need not eat all of them every day to derive the benefits,” explained Okereke.

“Even just one or two servings weekly of omega-3 foods will help protect the brain.”

>> Be active: No matter your exercise history, Okereke wants all seniors to know “it’s never too late to start. And that doesn’t mean one need run a half-marathon or lift a lot of weights. Walking 30 to 45 minutes a day at least four times a week has shown to be beneficial in preserving cognition.”

>> Stay connected and engaged: Socializing daily is crucial for brain health and mood, Okereke noted. Whether its friends, family, neighbors or even strangers, daily contact with others is one of the most important ways to ensure healthy mental aging.

“We encourage all seniors to participate in their communities,” explained Okereke. “Taking classes, volunteering — whatever they feel most comfortable doing, as long as it puts them in contact with others, is beneficial.”

>> Adopt habits that mitigate the risk for depression: “Unfortunately, around 10 percent of older adults suffer from depression,” said Okereke. “But there are certain modifiable behaviors that may help seniors avoid depression, or elevate their mood if they are depressed.”

Her suggestions include:

>> Drinking a moderate amount of caffeine daily.

>> Quitting smoking.

>> Moderate alcohol consumption (“One drink daily is optimal,” according to Okereke).

>> Eating foods rich in flavonoids (for instance, dark chocolate and berries).

>> Mitigating pain via meditation, yoga, visualization and other natural methods.

>> Maintaining a regular sleep schedule.

“We’re finding that people in their 70s, 80s and 90s can age healthfully, happily and productively if they incorporate as many of these suggestions as possible,” Okereke said.

Dr. Olivia Okereke a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

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