According to a major UK report, the bad news is: "The mental capital of older people is a massive, and underutilized resource". The good news is that tackling the problem could benefit the well being and prosperity of older people and society as a whole. The report concludes that there is a clear case for action across society including government, companies and individuals to boost mental capital and combat stress.
The two-year study into Mental Capital and Wellbeing looked at how a person’s mental resources change through life – as a child, adult and in old age – and identified factors that can help or hinder their development. Led by John Beddington, the study was based on advice from over 400 scientists in 16 countries. The results were
published by Foresight, part of the Government Office for Science and
the journal Nature (Vol. 455, October 23, 2008).
What is mental capital?
Dr. Beddington compared "mental capital" to a bank account of the mind. "We need to ask what actions we can add to that bank account, and what activities can erode that capital," he explained.
The study looked at two key aspects of mental development: mental capital and mental well being. Mental capital has to do with cognitive and emotional resources. It includes how people process information, their social skills and their resilience in coping with stress.
Mental well being, on the other hand, refers to the ability of individuals to develop their potential, work productively, maintain strong relationships and contribute to the community. Mental well being is dynamic; it fluctuates from day to day.
Importantly, the study found that older adults who report higher levels of well being also have higher levels of cognitive function.
The authors call for action on the following:
Work: Increase flexible hours for all workers. And for older adults, provide opportunities to work longer in paid and unpaid jobs, if they so wish.
Early identification: Target mental illnesses for early identification and prompt action. According to the authors, this could lead to earlier diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60 per cent of dementia cases. This, in turn, could enable patients to receive earlier treatment and plan for their futures.
Continuing education: Invest in educational programming for older adults, particularly, information technology. This could increase social connectedness and play an important role in helping people to overcome the memory effects of dementias.
Rising debt: The study highlights the strong link between poor mental health and debt. The report calls on banks, credit card and utility companies to be aware that indebted customers may be suffering from mental health problems. The report also warns the situation is likely to be exacerbated by the current economic downturn.
Finally, the report calls on all individuals to combat negative age stereotypes, which lead to the marginalization of older people.
Five ways to live vibrantly:
According to co-author Felicia Huppert (University of Cambridge), individuals can take a number of simple actions to combat stress and lead more fulfilled lives.
The report recommends the following five steps:
Connect: Nurture connections with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Think of these as cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them.
Be active: Go for a walk or run. Garden, cycle, play a game. Join a dance group. But most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
Take notice: Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be curious. Celebrate the changing seasons. Catch sight of the beautiful. Take time to reflect on your experiences. This will help you appreciate what matters to you.
Keep learning: Rediscover an old interest. Try something new. Take on a different responsibility at work. Learn to play an instrument. Fix a bike. Sign up for that course.
Give: Volunteer your time. Give a helping hand to a friend or stranger. Join a community group. Linking your happiness to a wider community can foster bonds with people and be very rewarding.