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Does Negativity Trigger Dementia? Fascinating New Study Tells the Story...

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Calling all “glass half empty” types: your persistent negative outlook is not doing your health any favors. Scientists have long been fascinated by how behavior influences our general well-being. And regular readers of this site, and its sister site Aging Defeated, may recall our previous reports on this very topic. A 2019 study concluded that an optimistic mindset could slash heart disease risk by 35 percent.1 In another study, researchers found that women with the highest “optimism scores” lived 15 percent longer than those with the least optimistic life outlook. The figure for highly optimistic men was an eleven percent longer lifespan.2 Now, this is pitting one extreme against the other. The grumps in the study were very grumpy indeed and the Pollyannas may be too cheerful to have sense. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle. Still, this is a significant increase in lifespan for doing nothing more than looking on the sunny side of life. And now research offers more reasons for adopting a positive outlook—this time, the findings relate to your memory. What’s more, there are ways to lift your optimism score without being blind to life’s troubles. In a new study, researchers at University College London found repetitive negative thinking is linked to cognitive decline, a higher number of detrimental protein deposits in the brain, and in turn, a greater risk of dementia.3 According to lead author Dr. Natalie L. Marchant, depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age are already known to be risk factors for dementia. However, in this study researchers found another risk factor. “Taken alongside other studies, which link depression and anxiety with dementia risk, we expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk of dementia,” Dr. Marchant explained in a press release.4

Negative Thinking Linked to Brain Plaque Build-up

Researchers surveyed 350 people over the age of 55 over a two-year period, asking them to respond to questions indicating how they reacted to negative experiences. The questions focused on negative thinking behaviors such as rumination about the past and worry about the future. In addition, about a third of the participants also agreed to undergo PET (positron emission tomography) brain scans to measure deposits of tau and beta amyloid in their brain. These two proteins can accumulate in the brain and cause Alzheimer's disease. The results of the study proved intriguing. The scans showed that those participants who dwelled longer in the negative had more tau and amyloid buildup. Importantly, these same people displayed worse memory and greater cognitive decline over a four-year period compared to their more optimistic peers. Dr. Helen Kales, chair of the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis, said the results of the study aren’t surprising. She explained that prior research suggested a strong link between depression and dementia. However, what wasn’t clear, she said, was whether depression is a cause, early symptom or consequence of dementia. Perhaps it’s a mix of the three? “What this study importantly suggests is that the underlying risk associated with depression or anxiety may be the repetitive negative thinking associated with both,” Dr. Kales said. On the flip side, Kales and other longevity researchers posit that those who age well without cognitive woes seem better equipped to think positively.

Overall Positivity Breeds Good Health

Studies show that on the whole, positive people tend to have better health habits, which lead to a stronger immune system and lung function.5 But I’m not advocating that you adopt a Pollyanna façade all day everyday. When the bad times come—as they do for everyone— and it’s difficult for you to put on a happy face, research reveals that’s just fine. “We do not think the evidence suggests that short-term setbacks would increase one’s risk of dementia,” Dr. Marchant said. However, an overall positive mindset does have many benefits so it’s worth cultivating. Experts like Dr. Kales recommend mindfulness exercises as a good way to start fostering more positivity in your life.

How to Build Your “Positivity Muscle”

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not being overly reactive or allowing feelings of being overwhelmed by what’s going on around us to take control of our mindset.6 While mindfulness is innate, it can be cultivated through proven techniques, such as seated meditation practices or moving meditation using Tai Chi. There’s plenty of good information on mindfulness online, but here’s a short beginner’s practice to get you started. Next, study researchers are delving into a new project to see which—or if any—mindfulness interventions can help reduce negative thinking.

The Attitude of Gratitude

Perhaps an even easier way to improve your outlook is to practice gratitude. You simply count all the things you are grateful for, every day, whether it’s a phone call from a friend, a good steak, an entertaining movie, the ability to pay your bills without stress – ANYTHING that inspires gratitude. Some people keep a gratitude journal. That’s not a bad idea. The practice first of all makes you realize there are a lot of good things in your life that you take for granted or don’t pay enough attention to. And secondly, the technique shifts your attention away from your problems and towards your blessings. Time spent thinking about the good things is time you don’t spend thinking about the bad. These days I find myself giving thanks all day long, for every good thing that happens, large or small. It turns out there are a lot of them.
  1. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(9):e1912200

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