Looking back can boost mental health

Biologist recommends reminiscing as a way to enhance our later years

By Betsy Butler, Ohio Public Employees Retirement System

May 9, 2024 – Nostalgia is good for you.

Coming in tenth in John Medina’s bestselling book, “Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp,” reminiscing regularly can improve your psychological health. That’s an important observation, as Medina reports that people who retire from a job are at greater risk for physical and mental challenges, including depression.

Most older adults retrieve the clearest memories from their late teens and early twenties. When each generation hears its favorite tunes from that time of their lives being played, they’re reminiscent of certain memories from youth.

Retirement may be one of the top life-stressors, but spending time reminiscing about older times missed can help. It’s one of the ways to reduce the effects of aging that you’ll find in this book. 

Medina, a molecular biologist and researcher at the University of Washington, organizes his work in four sections: How our emotions change with age; how cognitive brain functions change with time; how certain kinds of exercise, diets and sleep routines can slow decline; and how we can maintain brain health in the future. Along the way, he offers stress-reducing, life-enhancing tactics that include:

  • Cultivating relationships with younger generations
  • Practicing mindfulness, the calming, contemplative practice of focusing attention on the present moment
  • Exercising regularly, especially dancing.
  • Pursuing meaningful activities
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Keeping the mind active by reading or learning a new language
  • Eating small portions of a Mediterranean diet, the heart-healthy eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and good-for-you fats. 

Above all, be optimistic about aging. Cultivate happiness through an attitude of gratitude, as Oprah Winfrey did when she began writing down her blessings in a journal.

To put positive psychology in play, Medina suggests simple three-step exercises that are proven boosts to happiness, with lingering positive effects. Try recalling three positive things that happened during the day, writing them down, and describing why it happened. Or consider going on a “gratitude visit,” where you pick someone living who has meant a great deal to you. Write that person a 300-word letter describing how he or she influenced you, then read the letter aloud to that person and discuss it.

Or, choose not to retire, and keep working. Personal circumstances vary, but if you make that choice, Medina posits, you lower your mortality risk by 11 percent – and increase your chances of living longer.

Betsy Butler

Betsy Butler is the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System’s knowledge and issues strategist, researching information on pensions, retirement and health care. Betsy came to OPERS in 2009 after working as a special collections librarian for two OPERS employers: the Ohio History Connection and Miami University.

Betsy Butler

Knowledge & Issues Strategist

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