The Hidden Disease Killing Seniors

For 65-year-old Pauline Hannah, tragedy came fourfold.

Her mother died... along with her sister. And Pauline beat breast cancer... only to have it return for a rematch.

The overwhelming grief from losing family and the anxiety from two rounds of cancer dragged Pauline into a deep depression – to the point where she couldn't muster up the energy and will to dress herself or leave her house.

All she wanted to do was die.

Here in the U.S., May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And a startling 20% of folks aged 55 and up suffer from a mental health issue...

Chronic health problems become more common the older you get, which can take a toll on your mental health. The same can be said if you're caring for a spouse with, say, dementia. Outliving a spouse or having mobility problems that deter you from socializing equals loneliness, a huge risk factor for depression. Also, among Americans older than 60, 10% fall victim to elder abuse each year.

And sadly, 22% of suicide victims are older folks. Also according to the National Council on Aging, the highest suicide rate among all age groups is found in men aged 75 and older.

One way to dodge the doldrums is to have a hobby. A 16-countrywide study published last September found that among folks aged 65 and up, having a hobby was strongly associated with having fewer symptoms of depression and greater happiness.

Pauline's doctor, instead of sending her off to the pharmacy with a prescription, told her to start walking. So she started walking around the park near her home, where she contributed to a community garden.

There, she began a new hobby and made new friends with fellow volunteers. And today, Pauline "doesn't want to die anymore" – all thanks to gardening, which became her salvation.

And I can't think of a better hobby than gardening.

Gardening counts as a low- to moderate-intensity exercise. And it slashes your risk of depression by as much as 21%...

A recent study in May 2024's Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that exercising at low to moderate intensities reduces depression risk by 23% and 26%, respectively. The umbrella review looked at studies across the globe and found that an August 2022 meta-analysis concluded that gardening decreases symptoms of depression in elderly adults – particularly among those aged 75 and up.

Indulging in your green thumb helps you fend off a big trigger for depression and anxiety...

Sleep problems will wreck your mental health. They'll also wreck your physical health. And with summer just around the corner, you'll want to clean up your sleep hygiene. (I shared my top tips on how to prep your sleep for the coming heat in a recent Retirement Millionaire. If you're interested in giving it a whirl, here's how to do it.)

Published in March 2024, a Journal of Affective Disorders study divided 62,098 American adults into three groups: those who gardened, those who exercised in other ways, and those who admitted to not exercising.

Compared with the couch potatoes, the gardeners were 42% less likely to suffer sleep problems like not getting enough sleep, insomnia, sleep apnea, and daytime sleepiness. The folks who exercised but didn't garden saw a 33% lower risk of having multiple sleep problems. That makes sense as science has shown that better sleep comes with moving your body on the regular.

Just like your plants, you need plenty of sunlight...

Working outside while basking in natural light keeps your internal clock ticking to regulate your sleep-wake cycles. The morning sunlight activates certain cells in your eyeballs which tell your brain to stop pumping out the sleep hormone "melatonin." Then, as night falls, your melatonin levels ramp back up.

And, of course, natural light itself boosts your mood... A 2021 U.K. study of 500,000 middle-aged and older adults found that more time spent outdoors makes you happier, lowers your risk of long-term depression, and even helps you cut back on antidepressants.

To get the most out of gardening's mood-boosting benefits, you'll want to avoid being sidelined by an injury.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Squat or get down on one knee if you need to lower your body. You could end up with lower back pain by constantly bending over at your waist to grab something on the ground.
  2. You're not on ESPN's World's Strongest Man competition. Don't haul a huge bag of soil or fertilizer all at once. Use a wheelbarrow if you have one. Or break it down into smaller portions and make multiple trips for an even better workout.
  3. If you're going to be toiling away at high noon, cover up with sun-protective (UPF-rated) clothing and a hat. It might look silly, but consider wearing a cap or a wide-brimmed hat with a cape that covers your neck.
  4. The next time you're at your local home-improvement store, grab a foam kneeling pad. You can find them for around $10 or less at Harbor Freight Tools, Home Depot, and Lowe's, to name a few. Even better, consider getting a gardening chair or stool if you have extra cash to spare. By using a kneeling pad or a gardening chair, the largest joints in your body will thank you.
  5. Stand up slowly. Turn at your waist, put both hands to one side of your body, and push up with your arms while turning over so both knees are down, too. Then slowly rise, changing from all-fours to bending on one knee as though you're proposing.
  6. Don't forget about saving the smaller joints, muscles, tendons, and nerves in your hands, too. You don't want carpal tunnel syndrome. So use a weeding tool, switch it off between hands, and take breaks.

Finally, like any other form of exercise, I suggest you warm up with some stretches before you venture outside.

If you're like the millions of Americans suffering from depression, don't be afraid to get help. And make the time to prioritize your health with hobbies you enjoy that get you up and moving.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 16, 2024