Mental Health Month: The Impact of Brain Aging and Health on Mental Health

May marks the beginning of Mental Health Month an observance dedicated to spreading awareness of mental health conditions that are becoming increasingly prevalent across the global population. As the body of research concerning the wide-ranging impact of mental illness continues to grow, the correlation between brain health, the process of brain aging, and mental health becomes clearer. While mental health is just one of many important facets of overall brain health, emerging evidence points to its significance in promoting healthy brain aging.

Impact of Aging on Mental Health

There are many potential causes of mental illness among the aging population ranging from chronic disease to significant life changes. As patients age, they often suffer from increased physical impairments, pain, loneliness, as well as negative emotions associated with a loss of vitality, cognitive decline, and physical capabilities. Additionally, pharmaceutical interactions caused by certain types of medications can adversely contribute to these factors, worsening both brain and mental health.

As a facet of mental health, emotional function is one of many components of brain health which can be affected by age-related changes. Researchers have established the connection between depression, anxiety, and the increased risk of dementia later in life, however, emerging studies are providing evidence of the impact of depression on declines in cognitive function. Depression can lead to confusion and attention problems in aging adults and has been linked to dementia. Data from a recent study revealed a link between depression and an accelerated rate of brain aging.

Similarly, the presence of chronic stress can put individuals at a significantly higher risk for worsening or poor brain health. The effects of chronic stress and the associated release of cortisol build up overtime and put people at risk for cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions. Research has shown that high doses of cortisol can cause brain cell dysfunction, killing brain cells, and even leading to brain atrophy, worsening brain health as patients age.

Brain Health and Brain Aging 

Maintaining brain health is an essential component of healthy aging and ensuring optimal cognitive function, which can have beneficial effects on mental health. According to data from the World Health Organization, up to 15% of the population aged 60 and above is affected by dementia and depression; this percentage is expected to rise as the global population continues to age. At this time, available treatment options and management techniques remain relatively limited and the process of brain aging varies significantly from individual to individual. Healthy brain aging is influenced by genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors some of which can be targets for intervention.

Ensuring Healthy Brain Aging

Alongside the effective treatment and management of mental health conditions, there are a variety of factors to take into consideration when promoting brain health. Keeping the mind active is essential as experts recommend intellectual engagement, pursuing meaningful activities and hobbies, social connections, and learning new skills as effective methods for stimulating cognitive function.

Research also highlights the importance of stress management as chronic cortisol release adversely affects brain structure, decreases memory, and increases the risk for dementia onset. Preventative measures can include regular physical exercise, relaxation and mindfulness techniques, journaling, as well as other calming practices.

It is also important to focus on reducing the risks to cognitive health, such as environmental and lifestyle risks including high blood pressure, depression, brain injuries, medications, poor nutrition, smoking, substance abuse, sleep disorders, as well as social isolation – an especially pertinent factor throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, clinicians should focus on managing health conditions that can adversely affect cognitive health – such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, hypertension, and stroke – focusing on prevention and treating disease early and effectively. Healthcare professionals interested in exploring the many facets of brain health as well as the connection between brain aging and mental health are invited to attend the A4M Brain Health Summit: Addressing the 4M’s of Brain Aging. For those looking to delve deeper into mood as one of the 4M’s of brain health, there will be a special session titled Mood and the Inflamed Brain Session on Saturday, June 26, 2021, led by Ed Bullmore, MB PhD.