This past Wednesday was Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day when millions of Canadians were encouraged to really open up and talk to each other about mental health.
Mental health affects everyone, including those of us who now find ourselves in the second half of life. According to a 2012 report of the Canadian Mental Health Association, those aged sixty-five and older have a higher suicide rate than other generations. Studies also show that the rate of depression in both men and women over the age of sixty-five is 25% of the total population, which is approximately 10% higher than the rate of depression in the population under sixty-five.
Paul Links, former Chief of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, says that his own extensive research in the field also bears this out. He has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand in his practice. As he notes, men over sixty-five who have enjoyed highly successful careers are most susceptible to depression and suicide. Links points to the lack of “connectiveness” these men feel to others, their sense of isolation, and loneliness as chief causes of deteriorating mental health among older adults.
What can help to relieve the sense of loneliness that so many older Canadians experience? A clue may be found in the research of Harvard scholar George Vaillant.
In a book called Aging Well, Vaillant, wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for a group of Harvard men who were part of a study that began when they were all young, back in 1938, and which has continued to the present day. One of these men was the late President John F. Kennedy. Today only 19 of the original members of the study group survive. The six factors that predicted healthy aging were: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. No surprises there.
What did surprise the researchers was the role that community played in the men’s ability to age well. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
In fact, the study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife.
Canadian author and psychologist Susan Pinker agrees. She argues that social gatherings are critical to our health and well-being, especially as we age. Indeed, the lack of close personal friendships may shorten our lives faster than cigarettes, salt, sugar and animal fat. Real time, face to face contact, can help us to live healthier and longer lives. Chatting with friends on the porch or over the back fence, playing cards once a week, meeting friends every Tuesday morning at the coffee shop, having friends over to dinner regularly, or going to choir practice every week, can actually lengthen your life and bring you more happiness. And get this, study after study shows that these kinds of activities will do far more to promote health and longevity than “slathering on the sunscreen, downing fistfuls of vitamins, practicing mindfulness meditation, or sweating it out at the gym or with hot yoga.”
Again, the key to healthy aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.” Moreover, “our choice of communities can actually be a matter of life and death.”
In other words, get talking!
 Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2015.), p. 7.