- By Steve Dorfman Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
With each passing year, we all experience predictable physical changes.
More gray hair.
A new facial wrinkle or three.
But, for many, aging also comes with mental health and cognition challenges.
On Thursday, Dr. Olivia Okereke — a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School — spoke to a couple hundred attendees at a private health symposium and luncheon in Palm Beach about how folks can maintain mental health and cognitive abilities in their later years.
Okereke was one of several mental health experts from Massachusetts General who spoke to local health care workers and other community officials about a variety of topics including how deep brain stimulation can be used to treat mental illness; the latest findings about what, if any, connection there is between mental illness and violence; and how depression among youths is on the rise.
Local philanthropists and community health advocates Michele and Howard Kessler hosted the event at their home.
“There is a lot of misinformation and continued stigma out there about mental illness. Howard and I feel privileged to host Mass General psychiatrists and psychologists and to help get the word out,” said Michele Kessler.
Okereke’s portion of the symposium 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:
1. 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.”
2. 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.”
3. 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.”
4. Adopt habits that mitigate 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 included:
“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,” said Okereke.