Good mental health in later life starts from midlife

The National Counselling Policy will be introduced to address the mental health issues in the community.  This is timely as mental well-being is just as important as ones’ physical well-being. Mental health and well-being are important in older age as at any other time of life.  While some older adults have good mental health, some are at risk of developing mental health issues. One common mental health issue among older adults is dementia. 

According to our National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2018, the prevalence of dementia in Malaysia was 8.5% among  older  adults aged 60 years and above. Age is a major  risk factor for dementia, but this does not mean that dementia is a normal part of ageing. Many older adults live their lives without developing dementia. Early detection allows better care to those living with dementia and psychological counselling helps too. Studies have shown that modifying certain risk factors and practising healthy lifestyle might prevent and/or delay up to 40% of dementia. These risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, obesity and infrequent social contact. Therefore, prevention and mitigation of dementia must begin early (during adulthood) and continue throughout life. 

So, what can you do to reduce your risk of dementia?

1. Maintain your blood pressure at a healthy level in midlife (from the age of 40 years old)

2. Stop smoking or avoid smoking uptake 

3. Avoid excessive alcohol intake 

4. Be physically active 

5. Maintain healthy diet (avoid high intake of saturated fat, salt and sugar; consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetable daily)

6. Reduce stress and improve your mood 

These recommendations are similar to the recommendations on preventing non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. In addition, good sleep health, having more social interactions and increasing cognitive reserve by taking part in activities that requires thinking could also reduce the risks for dementia. Amidst the on-going Covid 19 pandemic, these practices are helpful as well to reduce the additional stress that older adults face from their own movement restrictions and fear of their more severe infection and increased risk for death from COVID-19.  

As many of us are aware, Malaysian population is growing old at a faster speed. The percentage of older adults aged 60 years and above has increased from 5.7% in 1990 to 10.3% in 2019. [1] With the increase in older population, the burden of mental health issue among the older people is expected to rise further. 

So let’s start now – good mental health in later life starts at midlife.

The article was written by Dr Ang Swee Hung (Doctor of Public Health candidate), Professor Dr Noran Naqiah Hairi and Professor Dr Moy Foong Ming. It was first published on 30 April 2021 in SinChew.

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