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“Social activity is a critical factor in optimizing your wellness” with Dr. Howard Rankin & Beau Henderson

Social activity is another critical factor in mental health in later years. Social activity involves many mental functions: short-term memory, focus, attention, understanding, etc., etc. It’s a complex activity that also hopefully generates good feelings and a sense of connection. This is why loneliness is so destructive; it actually is downgrading your mental capacities. Use […]

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Social activity is another critical factor in mental health in later years. Social activity involves many mental functions: short-term memory, focus, attention, understanding, etc., etc. It’s a complex activity that also hopefully generates good feelings and a sense of connection. This is why loneliness is so destructive; it actually is downgrading your mental capacities. Use it or Lose it. I once saw two dementia clients back to back in my practice. The first guy’s brain was actually in much better shape with less decline. But he had poor social environment and he was just sitting around getting more and more depressed. The second guy was in much worse shape from a brain perspective but had an amazingly supportive wife who had him engaged in many different activities. His brain might have been failing but he was enjoying a far better quality of life.


As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Howard Rankin. Dr Howard Rankin is a renowned expert in health and wellness who has consulted with major organizations like WHO and NIH. He has written 35 academic papers and written or co-written 20 books. An expert in behavior change Dr Rankin is heavily involved in the Healthy Minds Initiative, a program designed to educate, strategize, implement and research brain health at a community level for all ages.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I always wanted to be a writer but a high school teacher was doing a psychology course in his spare time. We talked and I went to talk with his supervisor. Instead of applying to college for law, I chose psychology instead. I had a long and varied career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I treated a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder who had several alter egos hiding horrendous abuse. It took twelve years to roll back the layers of her traumatized psyche, but when we did she was a transformed person who was able to finally reclaim her life.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

When I was in my Masters psychology course, there was much debate as to whether one should take notes during or after the session. One school of thought was that taking notes during a session could be distracting. I agonized long and hard about this and decided ultimately I would take notes after the session. In my first professional session, after the introductions, my client pulled out a notebook and said, “You don’t mind if I take notes do you?” That was the start of learning many things from my clients, not the least of which was that seemingly small things can make a big difference.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had several great mentors along the way. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to the prestigious Masters in Clinical psychology at the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry where many of the leading psychologists and psychiatrists were associated.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I would tell psychologists to become coaches.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Authenticity, respect and trust for everyone by everyone. Provide opportunities for everyone to improve their health, too. Helps your costs and their engagement.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?

Buying into assumptions about aging. Those assumptions can be justification for not doing things that are important, like movement. I believe that lack of movement is one of the key “causes” of decline.

Retirement is an inappropriate word. Why define a key part of life by what you won’t be doing, i.e. going to a job.

Rather aging and “retirement” gives you the opportunity to develop your purpose even more. And without a job to “define” you, that purpose becomes even more important.

Keeping physically and mentally healthy requires work and persistence. Healthy routines, social activity, good sleep routines, cognitive challenge, attention to healthy food and so on. Just because you no longer have a job doesn’t mean you can relax, sleep whenever you want, eat whatever you want, and sit on the couch for hours at a time. Poor lifestyle behaviors speed the decline, which people then attribute to “getting older”. But often the lifestyle contributes more than the age.

I will be bringing out a book on this in my How Not to Think series called How Not To Think About Retirement.

Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

Healthy nutrition is critical because what we eat are the building blocks of our brains and bodies. A poor diet, consisting of the Standard American Diet (SAD) of processed food and sugar is a disaster. It robs you of energy that you need as well as facilitating inflammation and a variety of related conditions. A plant based diet is best. Moreover we are beginning to understand the critical relationship of the microbiome to brain function. The gut influences such key things as neurotransmitters and has a big influence on mental state.

Physical activity, within reasonable limitations is key. Movement is associated with increased energy and many beneficial chemicals like Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor BDNF, which is critical to the development of new brain cell growth. Indeed, that neuroplasticity is essential for mental health as we age. New cells can be created especially in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. However, whether those cells survive or not is heavily influenced by movement and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. Yoga,Chi Gong and Tai Chi are great ways of moving, preventing the loss of muscle mass (which is related to cognitive decline), keeping energy up as well as developing mindfulness. We have known for decades that physical activity is the best method of managing anxiety and mood disorders.

For example, the hippocampus is a structure heavily involved in memory. What’s the point working out and keeping cognitively stimulated during the day if you then drink alcohol at night, which actually targets the same cells that you have been trying to develop with your daily activity? (It’s why alcohol is related to blackouts. It has a direct impact on memory. Also, we become less hydrated as we age, making our usual amount of alcohol more concentrated. Consumption of alcohol as we age should be kept very minimal (e.g a couple of glasses of wine a week or eliminated altogether. Personally, I also believe that the supposed benefits of wine have been over rated.)

A great sleep routine is important at any stage of life but especially as we age. One of the key reasons is that when we sleep, we remove toxins from the brain. Poor sleep leads to por waste management and the potential build up of toxins related to cognitive decline and dementia. 7 to 8 hours seems to be the ideal in general with about 20% coming from REM dreaming sleep and another 10% from deep sleep.

Social activity is another critical factor in mental health in later years. Social activity involves many mental functions: short-term memory, focus, attention, understanding, etc., etc. It’s a complex activity that also hopefully generates good feelings and a sense of connection. This is why loneliness is so destructive; it actually is downgrading your mental capacities. Use it or Lose it. I once saw two dementia clients back to back in my practice. The first guy’s brain was actually in much better shape with less decline. But he had poor social environment and he was just sitting around getting more and more depressed. The second guy was in much worse shape from a brain perspective but had an amazingly supportive wife who had him engaged in many different activities. His brain might have been failing but he was enjoying a far better quality of life.

Finally, cognitive activity needs to be maintained. There’s a lot of misleading ideas about this. Doing sudoku and crosswords and computer generated puzzles probably provide little benefit. The brain changes when pushed into doing NEW and CHALLENGING activities, like learning a musical instrument or a foreign language. That doesn’t mean mental activities like reading aren’t helpful but to get the real benefit you have to keep challenged.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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