The longer you live, the more likely you are to experience big, stressful life events. An aging family member who needs caregiving. The death of a loved one. A financial setback. Each year comes with new challenges.

The good news: Resilience (or the ability to bounce back and adapt) doesn’t depend on age, income or physical ability. And it isn’t something you’re born with or without. You can build your stores of resilience with daily habits — at any age.
Working toward resilience as you age is linked to lower rates of depression and mortality. Plus, people who score high in resilience tend to be more physically active and have strong social lives.
Try these science-backed tactics to keep bouncing back as the birthdays roll in.

1. Spend time with others

The studies are in. An active social life is associated with faster rebound in the face of stress. It’s also linked to a longer life and a greater sense of wellbeing. So how do you reap the benefits of a good social life?
First, focus on the people who mean the most to you. Quality trumps quantity. So reach out to your healthy supports — your closest family and friends — on the regular. Then, expand your social world. Faith groups, volunteer organizations and hobby groups are all ways to make new connections.

2. Celebrate your birthday — for real!

Negative messages about getting older aren’t hard to come by. And that negativity can take a toll.
Research shows that older people who have a negative outlook on aging tend to have lower cognitive function and a higher risk of dementia. The good news is that the opposite is true, too: Positive feelings about age = better brain function and lower dementia risk. Why? Likely because your attitude about aging affects your stress levels.
If you’re not jumping for joy at your birthday, that’s okay. You can re-train your brain with positive messages. If you find yourself getting down about your age, try talking back to that voice in your head.
If you think “Life is hard,” shift your thoughts to “Life is hard and I continue to experience joy.” Or, do you know someone who makes aging look easy, fun or dignified? What would that person tell you about your birthday negativity?
With practice, positive thoughts can start to stick. And that new outlook can help you bounce back faster from what life throws at you.

3. Build a buff brain with exercise

You’re probably aware of the benefits of exercise on your body — it lowers your risk of heart attack, many types of cancer and age-related injuries.
But did you know regular exercise strengthens your brain just as it does your body? Although brain size decreases with age, research has shown that exercise can actually help reverse that — and you can start anytime.
One study found that physical activity helped participants build measurable increases in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that lets you create and store memories. In another study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment who lifted weights two to three times a week improved muscle tone and cognitive function.
And it doesn’t take too much: Just walking briskly for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week, contributed to measurable brain improvements.

4. Practice gratitude

When stress hits, it’s hard to feel grateful. But people who practice gratitude tend to have fewer symptoms of depression and more positive feelings overall. That’s fuel you need to reframe a bad situation and move forward, instead of getting bogged down in negativity.
Try a gratitude journal. Taking time to write down what you’re thankful for every day can make positive thinking come more naturally.
For a bonus, spread that happy feeling to others by practicing small acts of kindness. Send a heartfelt thank you to a coworker. Buy a coffee for a stranger. You’re expressing your own gratitude and paying it forward.

Show References

  1. Macleod S, et al. The impact of resilience among older adults. Geriatric Nursing. 2016;37:266.
  2. Levy BR, et al. Positive age beliefs protect against dementia even among elders with high-risk gene. PLOS One. 2018.
  3. Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging. Accessed Sept. 17, 2018.
  4. The road to resilience. American Psychological Association. Accessed Sept. 18, 2018.
  5. Fontes AP, et al. Resilience in aging: Literature review. Ciencia & Saude Coletiva. 2015; 20:1475.
  6. The benefits of physical activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Sept. 20, 2018.
  7. Hippocampus. PubMed Health. Accessed July 1, 2018.
  8. Erickson KI, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2011;108:3017.
  9. Mavros Y, et al. Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: Outcomes of the study of mental and resistance training. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2017;65:550.
  10. Duprey EB, et al. Stressful life events and internalizing symptoms in emerging adults: The roles of mindfulness and gratitude. Mental Health & Prevention. 2018;12:1.
  11. Yang YA, et al. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 206;113:578.

Nov. 13, 2018