Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Keeping Your Wits About Ya

I know this blog, for the most part, deals with health as it pertains to fitness and clean eating (or mostly clean ;)), however I have been thinking a lot lately about how important it is to maintain mental health. 

Especially as we start to age. 

Circumstances beyond our control can sometimes create a lack of stability in the old noggin department (which I will go into later), but also just aging alone can start to affect the way we think about things, or not think about things....

As we grow older, we experience an increasing number of major life changes, including retirement, the loss of loved ones, and the physical changes of aging. How we  handle these changes, as well as regular day-to-day stresses, is the key to aging well.

Healthy aging is about much more than staying physically healthy—it’s about maintaining your sense of purpose and your zest for life. While the specific ingredients of healthy aging are different for everyone, the common factors are good mental health and the ability to manage stress. Knowing the basic formula for healthy aging will help you live with meaning and joy throughout your senior years.
Brain weight and volume decrease. On average, the brain loses 5-10 percent of its weight between the ages of 20 and 90.

When you're in your 20s, you begin to lose brain cells a few at a time. Your body also starts to make less of the chemicals your brain cells need to work. The older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory.

Aging may affect memory by changing the way the brain stores information and by making it harder to recall stored information.

Your short-term and remote memories aren't usually affected by aging. But your recent memory may be affected. For example, you may forget names of people you've met today or where you set your keys. These are normal changes.

While memory is definitely one thing that can be a side effect of aging and the brain, as I mentioned before, the way you simply think about things or situations can change as well.  I wonder (and I havent done the research here) if past experiences or even unexpected current recent situations can affect the way we think, respond and deal mentally.  I am going to go out on a limb here and say 'yes'.  I say this because I know for a fact that this has and is occuring to me.

Most recently the fact that I lost my mother (and my father is also passed away), has weighed greatly on my overall ability to think clearly at times and how I may or may not handle situations.
Grief is a multi-faceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed. And what greater bond is there besides that of a child (whether adult or not) and their parents.  Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement often refers to the state of loss, and grief to the reaction to loss.

They say there are four trajectories of grief:  Resilience, recovery, chronic dysfunction and delayed grief or trauma.  I am somewhere in between recovery and chronic dysfunction. 
Bereavement, while a normal part of life, carries a degree of risk when severe.  Severe reactions affect approximately 10-15% of people, and severe reactions mainly occur in people with depression present before the loss. 

Severe grief reactions may carry over into family relations.  Um.  Yeah.  Tell me about it.  My family seems to have fallen apart.  Or rather the part where I seem to be a part of it has fallen apart.  I think that my sister is still very much depressed from our mom passing, but I also think there is something more going on, but I can't be sure and I won't speculate here.  I have tried repeatedly to voice my concerns, my sadness and my overall feeling of abandonment, but its like its going in one ear and out the other.  And because of this my own personal mental health, which in turn affects me physically, is suffering.

An adult may be expected to cope with the death of a parent in a less emotional way; however, it can still invoke extremely powerful emotions.  This is especially true when the death occurs at an important or difficult period of life, such as when becoming a parent, graduation or other times of emotional stress.  It is important to recognize the effects that the loss of a parent can cause and address these. 

As an adult, the willingness to be open to grief is often diminished.  A failure to accept and deal with loss will only result in further pain and suffering.

Bereaved daughters talk about the void a friend of mine calls "mother hunger"—the wish that a wise older friend would adopt you, the pang of envy at the sight of a mother and daughter laughing together over lunch.  I have, on numerous occasions, requested to be 'adopted' by one or more friends.  Its very hard on my mental state to deal with the fact that I have no parents. 

Additionally, I have found that with all of this comes collateral damage, or casualties of the war (going on in your head).  Existing relationships may become strained or even break in two.  Its difficult to form new relationships.  The underlying thought being that they'll 'leave' too.  And even if its not that, just the fact that anyone new can't possibly understand what you are going through and sometimes just aren't equipped to provide any kind of support.

While these are just two instances of a situations that can affect your long term mental health, there are things you can do to ward off or at least drastically slow down the aging of the brain and its side effects and also how to deal with grief.
Lifestyle factors can not only drastically reduce the effects of not only aging of the brain, but your overall health are:
Education: Those who 'use it, don't lose it' as quickly.
  • I try and continue to read, and really should try and do more crosswords, puzzles or games of that nature.  I saw firsthand how my mothers mind deterioated.  We tried and tried to get her to do puzzles, even buying those ones with the big pieces that are for small children, but the attempts were made too late.  I would also like to say that I think too much television is just asking for trouble.  You really need to stimulate your mind in some way. 
Exercise: Those who walk rapidly for as little as 45 minutes three times a week significantly improve age-related declines in cognitive abilities. 
  • I know that even if and when there comes a time when I am not able to run, that walking will be something I will do for as long as I can.  One of the main reasons why I started yoga is also because of the fact that balance is one of the first things to go as you age and yoga obviously helps with that.  Plus just the overall benefits of quieting the mind, stress release and the time with yourself while being active greatly reduces stress.  Like with the above point, education, I also saw what lack of movement can do to someone who is aging or has passed the late 60's/70's.  After my dad's death, we saw my mother become less and less mobile, less attached, and when she went in for surgery back in 2007, she just never could recover from that due to all the muscle loss.  Stay active!  Even if its in small ways!
I believe firmly in these first 2 items, because as I have said, I saw what the lack of stimulation whether physically or mentally can do to a person.  My mom was unable to function properly, and it was a slow process, but I feel certain it contributed to her stroke, and ultimately to her death at 82.  In reality she had been 'sick' for 12 years leading up to that.
Rest: There is new evidence that suggests a regular pattern of eight hours of sleep per night helps protect against age-related chronic illnesses including memory loss.
  • Now due to other factors (in my case) I am not able to sleep 8 hours a night.  Coupled with the meds for my hypothyroidism and the onset of PMP, I am lucky to get through 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  However, I generally can go back to sleep, its just that its rarely uninterrupted.  I don't know what it would feel like to sleep for 8 hours at a time, but I sure wish I could!  However rest is rest, it doesn't have to be sleeping, and I do make sure that I give myself plenty of rest and down-time.  Its part of my routine and I never ever overbook myself.
Stress: When under stress, the human body produces a hormone called cortisol. In small amounts, it can improve memory-which is what helps emotional events stay vividly in our minds. In larger amounts, however, it wears away at the neurons.
  • I don't have a lot of stress, I try to avoid it at all costs, but obviously its not easy.  The stress I do encounter seems to be minor things (other than the losing my mother thing this year), so I can generally de-stress by running, going to the gym or yoga.  And sometimes just turning off all things electronic and disconnecting from the world for a day helps tremendously too.

I am not going to lie, I am having a very difficult time these past couple of months, and I have more good days than bad, but there is always the underlying issue of a few things that wears on me day in and day out.  Some days I can keep it together just fine, others I cannot.  I fail miserably.  I am trying to come to terms with certain things, and trying to do things differently in other areas, but sometimes its just too much for me and I feel like at any moment I might just crumble into a million pieces.  And then whats worse than that, is that if I did, would anyone even care?

But I march the good soldier...and I try and remember...

That at the end of the day, staying connected, finding joy, experiencing new things, boosting vitality, coping with change in a healthy manner, and finding your own formula for exceling is the key to handling whatever gets thrown at you! 


cheryl said...

I turn 58 at the end of next month...I will adopt you as a "second daughter" if you let me! I don't know about being "wise" but I have experienced quite a few things in my almost 58 years-and I just out swam a bunch of air force guys (I could be their mom too!) for my two miler...Some stress is good. Like my work stress. Exhilaratingly exhausting! But I feel like a make a difference in kids' lives so it gives me a sense of accomplishment.
IM # # when I turn 60!
Nice post btw-lots of good stuff (and research) went into this, I can tell!

Lisa said...

What a great post!

I'm sorry for the loss of your Mother. I can't imagine how difficult that must be, although one day I will know.

You are right on with your suggestions on keeping healthy as we age.

I believe that the TV is a big contributor to unhappiness and stagnation. I got rid of mine almost 2 years ago. With hulu and netflix, I'm much more directive about what I put into my head. It started out as a 6 month experiment, and I don't miss it a bit!

Another suggestion to keeping healthy and happy is sounds cheesy and overdone, but writing a list every morning of 3-5 things you are grateful for makes a huge, positive difference. The weeks when I slack off from my gratitude journal -- I notice.

Thanks for writing such a great blog. I'll keep reading!