One of the single most significant risk factors in older age is loneliness and isolation, which produce a huge stress response. Here psychotherapist Noel McDermott explains how this state is avoidable for most people by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
He challenges our assumptions about ageing and offers advice on making positive changes in later life, including stress-busting ideas and a guide to releasing reward hormones.
While it’s true, we can’t do much about the possibility of saying an accident will make us infirm later in life, and we can’t do much about that happening tomorrow. However, we can do an awful lot to avoid or reduce the major age-related risks to us through poor lifestyle choices, loneliness, and isolation. So, what are the major risks to us later in life?
- Age-related illness or infirmity
- Cognitive decline
- Social isolation and loneliness
Making positive choices in later life
What’s interesting is that all of the things on this list can be affected positively by choices we make about our lifestyle, common age-related illnesses, for example, are issues around diabetes, arthritic problems, and osteoporosis.
These are all illnesses which can be positively affected by changes to lifestyle, so making healthier choices by reducing sugar, exercising more, and exercising with weights can make a real difference.
So, a healthy diet and lifestyle can help reduce the risk of developing these diseases and often reduce their severity if they occur. The positive choices to lead a healthier lifestyle are fun now and later in life. Understanding the brain and reward hormones is vital in this.
Healthy choices can often be viewed as taking an unpleasant-tasting medicine; we know it’s necessary but not nice. A good place to start is understanding the health impacts of stress and the health impacts of getting a good DOSE of reward hormones.
Stress and global health
Stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol, and they are helpful if you want to run away from a threat or fight it off. Outside of that, too many of them lead to emotional, psychological, and physical health problems.
Stress is often said to be the world’s biggest killer leading to serious problems with mental health issues, heart disease, hypertension, increased cancer risk, increased risk of substance misuse/alcohol problems, sleep problems, disturbed appetite, obesity, and fat retention, especially visceral fat, there is pretty much an unending list of issues related to this physical and psychological state of stress.
Stress negatively impacts what is called ‘global’ health and well-being, not the planet but you as a whole. Global in the sense of every aspect of your health and well-being. As such, learning to reduce and manage your stress responses is key.
- Learn a controlled breathing technique such as mindfulness or the British army’s four-square breathing method.
- Develop self-care activities such as pampering through massage, makeovers, and spa experiences.
- Become aware of the signs of stress and threat activation and use this to counter stress responses when they occur with your breathing and relaxation methods.
- Learn your triggers and proactively manage them in less stressful ways.
- Discover relaxation techniques that work for you and start using them in your daily life.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to overstate the positive health impacts of learning better management techniques around inappropriate stress hormone production. The other side is learning how to DOSE yourself on reward hormones, which positively improve your global health.
How to DOSE yourself up on reward hormones?
- D- dopamine gives you a feeling of well-being, happiness, and motivation. It can be activated in most pleasurable social situations, such as a good night’s sleep, eating a nice meal, going for a walk or other exercise, listening to music, hanging out with friends, getting sunshine, engaging with nature and even by stroking pets.
- O- oxytocin promotes strong emotional and relational bonds, gives you a feeling of being loved up – the core of our social animal nature, improves mood and is now looked at as a treatment for social phobia, autism, and postpartum depression, anxiety, and depression.
- You get it from being physically close to those you love. Men and women produce it slightly differently as men can optimise hormone production in different behaviours, with both sexes getting a boost from, say, holding hands and kissing.
- Still, men can get it from simulated competitive ‘battle’ with other men leading to a significant release of loved-up feeling when you survive.
- Ever wondered why guys bond so much on the football terraces? It’s all that hugging! Women tend not to have this fight-flight response.
- S- serotonin is a well-known term because of the everyday use of SSRI’s selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or Prozac or fluoxetine, as it is more generically known in the UK. Serotonin regulates mood and manages depression and anxiety.
- It improves happiness and well-being, and this has a global health improvement impact. Great ways to get some include sunshine and, in general, a good amount of bright light (you can use a ‘daylight’ or anti-depression lamp), exercise that fatigues you (serotonin is produced in this type of fatigue to help you recover), eating healthy foods with good protein (plant-based) and those less intensively farmed (wild food often has higher sources of the amino acids that help serotonin production).
- So, replicating our hunter-gatherer roots when we were outside more, we had to walk miles and eat wild stuff on the hoof.
- E- endorphins, our natural pain killers. Nothing like naturally produced opiates to feel good! Endorphin is a combination of endogenous (from the body) and morphine, naturally occurring morphine has the impact of giving us an amazing sense of well-being.
- Again, a sense of well-being is evidenced to improve global health outcomes, including improved physical health, social health, economic health, and relationship health. For pain relief, use stress relief as both states are the same regarding health and well-being.
- Endorphins are a super stress buster. Here’s some stuff that produces endorphins: vigorous exercise is the most well-known, but also laughing, dark chocolate because of flavonoids and spicy foods which stimulate pain responses in the mouth. Yoga and meditation also produce endorphins – it all sounds like a lot of fun!
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: ‘Every one of the DOSE hormones is also well researched to improve cognitive functioning and brain health, specifically protecting against a decline in those areas.’
‘These healthy choices to eat better food, socialise more, be more active, sleep well, learn to relax and pamper yourself don’t need gym memberships, special training coaches or a degree in nutrition. they are freely available, and what’s more, your body and brain will tell you what is working by making you feel great.’