Time to think positive – optimistic attitude to aging could help reverse cognitive decline

New study shows people who think positively about aging are more likely to recover memory.

A new study by Yale School of Public Health study has found that older persons with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a common type of memory loss, were 30% more likely to regain normal cognition if they had a positive attitude about aging. Those regaining cognition had absorbed positive beliefs about aging from their culture, compared with those who had taken in negative beliefs [1].

Researchers also found that these positive beliefs also enabled participants to recover their cognition up to two years earlier than those with negative age beliefs. This cognitive recovery advantage was found regardless of baseline MCI severity [1].

Longevity.Technology: Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a prevalent cognitive disorder, primarily affecting memory function and that is recognized as a transitional stage between normal cognitive aging and dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease [2]. Individuals with MCI exhibit mild cognitive deficits that are not severe enough to interfere with daily life activities – but the deficits are noticeable and measurable, and epidemiological studies have shown that the prevalence of MCI is around 20% to 25% in individuals aged 80 and over, and its incidence increases with age [3].

Although MCI has long been considered a precursor to Alzheimer’s, the condition is potentially reversible. In fact, a significant proportion of older adults with MCI regain normal cognition over time. For instance, repeated assessments of cognition in people aged over 65 revealed that nearly 50% of individuals with MCI reverted to normal cognition, while others remained stable or progressed to dementia [3]. While this finding is encouraging, the mechanisms underlying MCI reversion are still unclear, posing a significant challenge to clinicians and researchers.

The importance of understanding MCI lies in its potential for early intervention and prevention of cognitive decline. Since MCI is a transitional stage between normal cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s, identifying individuals with MCI can help detect the early signs of cognitive decline and facilitate timely interventions that may delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. Research is working to develop effective interventions that can halt or reverse cognitive decline in older adults, and this study helps to shed light on how mindset could play an important role.

“Most people assume there is no recovery from MCI, but in fact half of those who have it do recover,” said Becca Levy, professor of public health and of psychology and lead author of the study. “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 [4].”

Levy predicted that positive age beliefs could play an important role in cognitive recovery because her previous experimental studies with older people found that positive age beliefs reduced the stress caused by cognitive challenges, increased self-confidence about cognition and improved cognitive performance.

The new study, which is published in JAMA Network Open and co-authored by Martin Slade, a biostatistician and lecturer in internal medicine at Yale, is the first to find evidence that a culture-based factor – positive age beliefs – can contribute to MCI recovery.

Older people in the positive age-belief group who started the study with normal cognition were less likely to develop MCI over the next 12 years than those in the negative age-belief group, regardless of their baseline age and physical health [1].

The study, which was funded by The National Institute on Aging, was based on 1,716 participants aged 65 and above who were drawn from 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,” Levy said [4].

[1] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2803740
[2] https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241550543
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24353333/
[4] https://bit.ly/3GY4VwS

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