decisions you make in your 20s and 30s you can increase your chances of aging well, without the help of biohacking or anti-aging therapies. But aging well isn’t just about your physical health, it’s also about your mental health.
Some research suggests that older adults view symptoms of depression as a “normal part” of aging, says Courtney Millar, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. As a result, they might stop prioritizing emotional well-being over their physical health. Knowing this, Millar examined the relationship between depressive symptoms and age-related conditions, such as frailty.
Millar and her colleagues analyzed nearly 11 years of data, including 1,701 study participants. The participants were around 58 years old at the beginning of the research. Over the years, they have answered questions about their diet and mental health. The researchers also assessed their physical health at the beginning and end of the study.
The scientists found that people who ate inflammatory foods were at increased risk of frailty, a clinical syndrome characterized by impaired physical and cognitive health. The link became even stronger among people with depressive symptoms. The results were published in gerontology journals in July.
The findings suggest that taking steps to safeguard mental health and eating anti-inflammatory foods are two critical actions you can take to prepare your body for old age. It is possible that both practices can help reinforce the other.
“If your mental health improves, you’re more likely to engage in physical activity and probably make better food choices,” explains Millar. But it goes both ways, he adds.
“If you don’t prioritize physical activity, you may not be getting all those endorphins from a regular cardio routine, which can affect your mental well-being,” she says.
mental health and inflammation
Because people with depressive symptoms tend to have higher levels of inflammation, Millar’s team thinks adding dietary inflammation to the mix could be driving the development of frailty.
Research suggests that inflammation plays a role in the development of depressive symptoms. Activation of the immune system results in inflammation. Acute inflammation occurs when you cut your finger, which is why you see redness and swelling. Chronic inflammation can last for years and contributes to conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
People with depression tend to have immune changes associated with inflammation. Meanwhile, antidepressants can decrease inflammation. But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario: A 2022 study found that while inflammatory diseases can contribute to depression, some people with depression don’t have elevated levels of inflammation.
Scientists are still investigating the relationship. There is also evidence that depression can lead to inflammation.
“It’s another ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario,” says Millar.
Anti-inflammatory diet and healthy aging
Ultimately, research suggests that an anti-inflammatory diet can help delay frailty, which means living well later in life might start by eating well now.
“Young and middle-aged adults should try to eat foods that contain antioxidants,” says Millar.
“A good rule of thumb is to try to eat a colorful diet,” she says. “A good number of the pigments that give our fruits their color are actually antioxidants.”
Examples of foods with antioxidants include tomatoes, berries, and dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, bok choy, and broccoli. Fermentation also increases the antioxidant properties of foods.
In a previous study, Millar also found a link between eating a Mediterranean diet and reducing the likelihood of frailty. One of the key features of a Mediterranean diet is the emphasis on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and fruit and nut oils.
Overall, these studies suggest that diet should be prioritized to maintain physical and mental health in old age, says Millar.
“Mental health is another piece of the puzzle for healthy aging,” he explains. “I know it can be overwhelming to add another item to the list, but focusing on it can be the missing link.”