Pic: iStock A POSITIVE attitude towards ageing can help you ward off mild cognitive impairment better than people who become grumpier and more cantankerous. It certainly seems to be working for 96-year-old David Attenborough, who said last year that “focus and curiosity” help him stay clear-minded. And researchers at Yale University School of Public Health have shown how a positive attitude could help the rest of us avoid or even reverse age-related memory loss and restore cognitive ability to normal.
Forgetting names of people and places and appointments and misplacing things are all common symptoms of age-related MCI (mild cognitive impairment), which, according to the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, affects as many as 10% of people in Ireland. “Most people assume there is no recovery from MCI, but, in fact, half of those who have it do recover,” says Becca Levy, public health and psychology professor at Yale and lead author of the new study. “Little is known about why some recover while others don’t.”
To determine if an optimistic outlook on ageing has any effect, Prof Levy and her team recruited 1,716 people in their 70s enrolled in the US National Health and Retirement Study, some of whom were diagnosed with MCI and others who had normal cognition. Participants were tracked for 12 years, and results published in JAMA Network Open journal showed that those with a cheery disposition had a 30.2% greater likelihood of recovering from memory impairment than those with negative age beliefs.
A positive outlook also meant people recovered their cognition up to two years faster than the grumpy cohort. Prof Levy said that “age-belief interventions could increase the number of people who experience cognitive recovery”.
The new findings add to a slew of evidence about the power of positivity on healthy ageing for mind and body. Three years ago, psychologists from Northwestern University reported that, of 991 middle-aged and older people, those who were mostly enthusiastic about the future performed better in memory tests as they got older. Others have shown that optimistic adults have better blood sugar control and healthier cholesterol levels, adding up to improved cardiovascular health, and that a habitually positive outlook on life can minimise chronic pain and associated emotional distress.
Another recent study of 1,000 younger adults in Europe, Canada, and the US revealed that dark feelings are more likely linked with poor health, including stress-related headaches, nausea, back pain, and insomnia. Professor Reinhard Pekrun, a psychologist at the University of Essex who led the investigation, says his findings suggest that if two people of equal cognitive ability took a test, the more positive-minded individual would achieve a grade higher than someone with a negative mindset. “Overall, hope was the healthiest and best way to spark success and promote long-term happiness,” Prof Pekrun says.
If you are prone to pessimism, you will also be accumulating stress. “Over time, being negative and self-critical means your body will begin to shut down to protect itself, becoming slower and more susceptible to health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and sleep problems,” says psychologist Dr Julie Hannan, author of The Mid Life Crisis Handbook.
The good news is that you can train yourself to become more positive. “Research shows that starting to give ourselves a bit of compassion and speak more kindly to ourselves is the first step out of negative thinking and away from an inner critical voice,” Dr Hannan says. “When we do this more often, the body starts to release more feelgood oxytocin and lower levels of damaging stress hormones, such as cortisol.”
Along with fostering a positive outlook, here are five steps you can take to boost your memory:
Eat plenty of fruit and veg: A diet low in beneficial plant compounds, called flavonoids, will accelerate age-related memory loss, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University. But replenishing flavonols in the diets of people over 60 produced better performances in memory tests, they found.
“The improvement among study participants with low-flavanol diets was substantial and raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets or supplements to improve cognitive function in older adults,” said Adam Brickman, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University and one of the study authors.
Take a multivitamin: Another recent study of more than 3.500 adults by the same Columbia University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital team showed that popping a multivitamin supplement can slow age-related memory decline. According to JoAnn Manson, head of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the authors, “multivitamin supplementation holds promise as a safe, accessible, and affordable approach to protecting cognitive health in older adults”. However, a medical professional should always be consulted before taking any form of supplement.
Go for a daily walk: Going for a stroll will strengthen connections in and between brain networks, enhancing memory and slowing age-related cognitive decline, according to researchers at the University of Maryland. They found that older adults with MCI who walked on a treadmill four days a week during a three-month study had a slower decline in memory than non-walkers.
“These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilise people with mild cognitive impairment and, maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia,” said Carson Smith, a professor with the School of Public Health and lead author of the study.
Drink three cups of tea a day: Tea leaves are rich in flavonoids with anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to offer vascular protection for the brain. In 2017, research by assistant professor Feng Lei , of the National University of Singapore’s department of psychological medicine, showed that drinking at least one cup (but preferably three or more) of green or black tea a day helped to cut the risk of memory decline and dementia among older adults by 50%. Among those genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease, the potential risk was cut by 86%.
Eat more fibre: Researchers have shown that when fibre is fermented by […]