Stay positive! Optimistic thoughts about aging keep memory skills sharp

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Can’t remember if the glass is half-full or half-empty? Go with half-full. Researchers from the Yale School of Public Health find that a more positive attitude about aging and growing old may help older adults regain certain cognitive skills.

In comparison to others with a more pessimistic take on aging, older individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a common type of memory loss, were 30 percent more likely to regain normal cognition if they held positive beliefs about aging from their culture.

Moreover, the study also found that positive beliefs about aging enabled participants to recover their cognition up to two years earlier than others with more negative beliefs regarding aging. This cognitive recovery advantage remained regardless of baseline MCI severity.

“Most people assume there is no recovery from MCI, but in fact half of those who have it do recover. Little is known about why some recover while others don’t. That’s why we looked at positive age beliefs, to see if they would help provide an answer,” says Becca Levy, professor of public health and of psychology and lead author of the study, in a media release.

Older, senior couple happy, healthy
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Positive thoughts can keep the mind sharp for over a decade

Prof. Levy theorized that positive age beliefs may play a major role in cognitive recovery due to previous studies she conducted involving older adults. Those studies indicated positive age beliefs reduce the stress resulting from cognitive challenges, increase self-confidence about cognition, and improve cognitive performance.

Now, this latest work is the first ever to gather evidence suggesting a culture-based factor (positive age beliefs) can contribute to MCI recovery. Older individuals in the positive age-belief group with normal cognition at the start of the study were less likely to develop MCI over the following 12 years than those in the negative age-belief group. This held true regardless of baseline age and physical health.

This research received funding from The National Institute on Aging. It included 1,716 participants 65 years and older, all of whom were a part of the Health and Retirement Study, a national longitudinal study.

“Our previous research has demonstrated that age beliefs can be modified; therefore, age-belief interventions at the individual and societal levels could increase the number of people who experience cognitive recovery,” Prof. Levy concludes.

The findings appear in JAMA Network Open.

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