Those Steps You Take to Be Physically Healthy? They’re Good for Your Mental Health, Too

steps to be physically and mentally healthy

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, presenting an excellent opportunity to talk about how to protect mental health in older adults. While many ways of safeguarding mental health are known to benefit people of all ages, some can be especially important for seniors.

Fortunately, a lifestyle aimed at maintaining good physical health can pay dividends for mental health as well. Getting enough exercise and sleep, eating a nutritious diet, reducing stress and managing chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, all promote better health outcomes, both physically and mentally.

Naturally, the sooner you adopt healthier habits, the better your chances are of preventing or slowing, mental or physical health issues. But the good news? It’s never too late to improve your health by changing your routine.

The First Step: Talking About Mental Health

In recent years, you may have noticed more stories in the news about mental health, and that’s a positive trend. The more we know about mental health, and the more openly we talk about it, the more people are apt to engage in healthy behaviors.

A few generations ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about mental health. Even among medical professionals, the focus centered more on mental illness than mental health. What’s more, when people thought about mental illness back then, they usually had in mind conditions such as schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder (previously known as split personality disorder).

This lack of awareness created a stigma around mental illness, and some of the misconceptions rooted in those earlier times still exist. These negative associations with mental illness often keep people from reaching out for help if they’re having trouble managing their feelings. Those who feel ashamed or embarrassed because they’re experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health struggles may be reluctant to seek treatment or even talk about it with friends and family.

These days, discussions of mental health cover a much broader range of topics, from foods that boost brain health to behavioral therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Now, it’s much more common to talk about prevention as well as treatment.

Prevalent Senior Mental Health Concerns

Much like physical health, mental health varies from person to person, and two people with the same mental health issue may take quite different approaches to their situation.

Still, certain mental health conditions are particularly prevalent in older adults — to such an extent that some people mistakenly believe these conditions are a normal part of the aging process.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1 in 5 people age 55 or older experiences some sort of mental health concern. The most prevalent mental health issue for seniors is depression, which can impair physical, mental and social functioning.

The CDC notes that while the rate of seniors having symptoms of depression rises when you look at increasingly older age groups, depression is not a normal part of aging. And, in an estimated 80% of cases, depression in older adults is treatable.

Too often, though, depression is untreated because friends and family — and sometimes even the person experiencing depression — don’t recognize the symptoms or dismiss them as normal for that age.

Social isolation, loneliness, hearing and vision loss, chronic illness, sleep disorders and other conditions common among seniors contribute to the risk for depression.

Cognitive Impairment

Many, if not most, seniors are concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, and with good reason: increasing age is the predominant risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 6.7 million Americans age 65 or older are living with Alzheimer’s, or about 10.8% of that age group. Fortunately, research shows that around 40% of all dementia can be prevented or delayed by certain lifestyle choices.

The term dementia refers to a decline in cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving and judgment, loss of memory and difficulty communicating. Although dementia affects mental health, most professionals in the medical community do not consider dementia a mental illness.

Some measure of forgetfulness is typical as we get older, but the National Institute on Aging (NIA) is clear on this: Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Mental Health

As mentioned earlier, certain lifestyle choices can increase your odds of staying healthy, both in body and mind. So can various activities. Here are some common recommendations:

  • Stay physically, mentally and socially active. Exercise is one of the top suggestions for maintaining good mental health. If you haven’t been physically active for a while (or ever), check with your physician first and consider talking with a fitness expert for advice on getting started. Even if you have limited mobility, there are ways to modify many exercises. Think chair yoga or water aerobics.
    Be sure to exercise your brain, too. Do puzzles, take classes, read, learn a new language or take up a hobby that makes you think. “Use it or lose it” applies to your muscles and your brain!
    To get even more value for the time you devote to exercising your body and brain, exercise in a social setting. Not only will being around others help motivate you, but you could also end up forming new friendships.
    Whether it’s part of your physical fitness routine or not, do make a conscious effort to stay connected with other people. A growing body of research shows just how important our relationships are in terms of mental health and overall well-being. If your social circles have dwindled, volunteering can be a rewarding way to make new connections.
  • Get enough sleep. You may have heard that older adults don’t need as much sleep, but that’s not true. For various reasons, sleep problems may be more common as people get older, but this doesn’t mean you should just shrug it off as a normal condition of aging if you have difficulty sleeping.
    An underlying illness or even a prescription drug you’re taking could be interfering with your ability to get the sleep you need. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Eat nutritious foods. The MIND diet focuses on plant-based foods that have been linked to dementia prevention, according to the NIA. The diet recommends eating more vegetables — especially leafy greens, berries, whole grains, beans and nuts – and eating less red meat, sweets, cheese, butter and fast or fried food.
  • Lower your stress. It’s no secret that chronic stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Stress increases the hormone cortisol, and increased cortisol levels can damage certain parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory.
    Some suggestions for keeping stress at bay include yoga (your local senior center may offer yoga classes specifically for older adults), tai chi, meditation, enjoying quality time with friends, listening to music, and spending time outside in green spaces (in parks, gardens and other spots with trees and vegetation) or blue spaces (near bodies of water — lakes, ponds, rivers, the sea or ocean, or even a fountain or manufactured waterfall).
  • Adopt a pet. Studies have shown that having a pet can benefit older adults in a number of ways. For instance, sharing your home with a four-legged or feathered friend may make it more likely you’ll stick to a regular schedule, which can have a positive effect on your physical and mental health. Plus, the bond you form with a pet can increase your quality of life and help prevent depression. And if you have a dog, there’s a good chance you’ll get more exercise and have more social interactions!
    If adopting a pet is not an option for you, volunteering at a local animal shelter will provide many of the same benefits — and you can feel good about providing a much-needed service in your community.

How Retirement Communities Support Mental Health for Seniors

By design, senior living communities make life easier and more enjoyable for those who live in them. The lifestyle encourages better health in a multitude of ways. These are just a few:

  • Less stress, because you won’t have to maintain your home
  • More opportunities for social engagement, new friendships and participation in a broad variety of classes and activities — including fitness classes
  • Healthy dining options, without the hassle of shopping and cooking
  • The option to have a pet (in many senior living communities, including Heron’s Key)

A Life Plan Community like Heron’s Key also gives you access to advanced health care at predictable costs, should you need it. This can provide considerable peace of mind.

Make Your Mental Health a Priority

We would love to welcome you to our community. As you can see, living in a place like Heron’s Key can help in your quest for good mental health.

To see if our community is a good fit for you (or someone you care about), contact us to experience Heron’s Key in person.

Whether you join us or not, we urge you to take good care of your mind, body and spirit. You can begin right away. Little steps add up, and they can lead to bigger steps — and better results. You’ll thank yourself in years to come.

Featured Image: RaxPixel / Shutterstock