“Don’t believe what that birth date tells you – I’m 80 going on 30, young man!” Her eyes sparked and smile widened as the woman across my clinic desk answered my earlier question about her age. She then rolled her eyes and told me with a cheeky grin, “I always hate that question.” The woman in front of me was more youthful than you would expect for 80 years and when she explained that at times it was hard “watching my body get older but my mind stay young” I realised she had a very good point. And she’s not alone by any means!
Ageing comes with a lot of physical trials and changes (enough said, huh). But the transition into older age from a psychological perspective can really hit home too. From health struggles and an ageing reflection to a more-than-active mind, it’s a matter of mind as much as muscle.
It’s actually really common to feel the mental weight of getting older, particularly when the mind begins to feel significantly younger than the body (hence the “I’m 80 going on 30” comment). Studies show feeling younger mentally than you are physically can be a regular point of pressure for those over the age of 65.
Healthy ageing includes, of course, the mental side of things, so it’s important that we stop to think about any sense of gap between body and brain. For many, these pressures and fears can be a key part of the development of depression and anxiety in older age, so it’s vital to discuss it openly.
Making mind meet body
So how exactly do we keep up with a younger mind in what feels like an older body – particularly as health challenges and changes creep in? Here are some evidence-backed tips that can help.
1. Stay active
This one is a bit of a no-brainer: staying as active as we’re able to can help both mind and body adapt to ageing together. The physical impacts of getting older can be a hard hit for a still-young mind to take, but keeping activity levels up and in line with what we’re still able to do can allow the mind to feel like there’s purpose and progress. The beautiful thing about even short and low-intensity stints of exercise or activity is that they give a boost to brain as well as brawn, particularly as we enter older age. Research shows that many forms of physical activity benefit our brain health, mood and memory as much as our body.
2. Strength in numbers
If my 80-year-old patient’s thoughts (above) made you suddenly feel “seen”, it’s because feeling younger inside than outside is quite common. You’re definitely not alone. Sharing how you’re doing and how your mind is adjusting to some of the physical challenges of age can go a long way towards adjusting to it better. Share how you’re feeling with friends, family and (of course) your doctor. Finding this tough is normal but – as we always say – it’s better out than in!
3. Gratitude gains
Acknowledging where things are at and what there is to be thankful for is one of my favourite things to do when it comes to working with those coming to terms with getting older. The good news? There’s a whole lot of evidence that this tool really works. Gratitude for what we still can do, what we still have and (ultimately) that we’re still alive can go a long way to helping mind and body merge. Research shows that feeling grateful is a habit that can be built, so reflecting on these daily and even writing them down (known as journalling) is something I encourage often.
4. From mind to matter
Using a healthy (and a I’m-still-30-feeling) mind to benefit what feels like an older body is wrapped up in science. There are some exciting new lines of research out about the impact the mind has on the body, so using a mind that still feels fresh and young to benefit the body as much as possible is a nice way to make hay while that mental sun shines. Mindfulness exercises and keeping stimulated with things such as reading or mental tasks can all go a long way to using that fresh mind to benefit the body.
5. Strong foundations
Healthy, happy ageing for mind and body often come down to many of the very same things, thankfully! Locking in and continuing the strong foundations that benefit both can be a fantastic way to help the mind and body feel more in alignment. Regular activity, a balanced diet, social time and prioritising sleep work as much for an older mind as they do for one that’s younger. Research shows that keeping these basics in good stead can make a significant difference to how we age – whether we’re 80 going on 30, or the other way around!
Dr Kieran Kennedy on 21 April 2021