Cultivating 2 habits in your 30s can boost mental health in old age

The decisions you make in your 20s and 30s can improve your chances of aging well—without the help of biohacking or antiaging therapies. But aging well isn’t just about your physical health—it’s also about your mental health.

Some research suggests that older adults see depressive symptoms as a “normal part” of aging, says Courtney Millar, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. As a result, they may prioritize emotional well-being over their physical health. Knowing this, Millar investigated the relationship between depressive symptoms and age-related conditions such as frailty.

Millar and her colleagues analyzed nearly 11 years of data, including 1,701 study participants. At the time of the study, the participants were about 58 years old. Over the years, they have answered questions about their diet and mental health. The researchers also assessed their physical health at the beginning and end of the study.

Scientists have found that people who eat inflammatory foods have a greater risk of frailty, a clinical syndrome characterized by deterioration of physical and cognitive health. The association was even stronger among people with depressive symptoms. The results were published in Journals of gerontology in July.

The evidence suggests that taking steps to protect your mental health and eating anti-inflammatory foods are two important things you can do to prepare your body for old age. It is possible that both practices can help strengthen the other.

“If you’re improving your mental health, you’re more likely to be physically active and likely to make better food choices,” explains Millar. But it goes both ways, she adds.

“If you don’t prioritize physical activity, you may not be getting all those endorphins from regular cardio, which can affect your mental well-being,” she says.

Mental health and inflammation

Because people with symptoms of depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation, Millar’s team believes that adding dietary inflammation to the mix may contribute to the development of frailty.

Research suggests that inflammation plays a role in the development of depressive symptoms. Activation of the immune system leads to inflammation. When a finger is cut, acute inflammation occurs – due to this, redness and swelling are observed. Chronic inflammation can last for years and contributes to diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

People with depression tend to have immunological changes associated with inflammation. Meanwhile, antidepressants can reduce inflammation. But that’s not a universal scenario: A 2022 study found that while inflammatory diseases can contribute to depression, some people with depression don’t have elevated levels of inflammation.

Scientists are still investigating this connection. There is also evidence that depression can lead to inflammation.

“It’s another chicken-or-the-egg scenario,” says Millar.

Anti-inflammatory diet and healthy aging

A naturally bright diet is often healthy. Getty Images

After all, research shows that an anti-inflammatory diet can help delay frailty — meaning that to live well later in life, you can start by eating right now.

“Young and middle-aged adults should try to eat foods rich in antioxidants,” says Millar.

“A good rule of thumb is to try to eat a variety of foods,” she says. “A significant amount of the pigments that color our fruit are actually antioxidants.”

Examples of foods with antioxidants include tomatoes, berries, and dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, bok choy, and broccoli. Fermentation also increases the antioxidant properties of foods.

In a previous study, Millar also found a link between following a Mediterranean diet and reducing the likelihood of frailty. One of the key features of the Mediterranean diet is its emphasis on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and fruit and nut oils.

Overall, these studies suggest that diet should be a priority for maintaining physical and mental health in old age, Millar says.

“Mental health is another piece of the healthy aging puzzle,” she explains. “I know it can be overwhelming to add one more item to the list, but focusing on it can be the missing link.”

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