It’s the (Positive) Thoughts that Count

Readers of this blog will have noted that My New Old Self has enthusiastically embraced positive thinking. This was most recently in response to a study about the effects of exercise on older people. It revealed that the mere thought that you are not exercising enough can shorten your lifespan.

Think positive

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Now there is a new scientific study further vindicating the healthy effects of positive thinking for older people. It shows that thinking positive thoughts about aging can reduce the risk of developing dementia. Not slightly, but significantly. Older people who hold positive beliefs about getting older were found to be 44 percent less likely to get dementia than those who felt negative about it.

Study participants were asked to comment on statements like: “The older I get, the more useless I feel.” Those who supported negative views of aging were found to be far more likely to later develop dementia.

This study conducted by Yale University with support from the US National Institute on Aging was impressive in terms of scope. Researchers assessed nearly 5,000 Americans aged 60-plus over a period of four years.

Positive thinking can override bad genes

The study revealed positive attitudes about aging to be more influential than genetic factors that predispose one to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The results of thinking positively were even more convincing in older people who had this gene that has been linked to cognitive and intellectual deterioration. Known as APOE4, it is one of the most established genetic risk factors for dementia. Yet the study showed that older people with this gene were 50 percent less likely to develop dementia – if they felt positively about aging.

“The results of this study suggest that positive age beliefs, which are modifiable and have been found to reduce stress, can act as a protective factor, even for older individuals at high risk of dementia.”

Positive beliefs about getting older can apparently reduce the effects of stress. Older people holding negative age stereotypes were found to have an exacerbated response to stress – which has been linked to the development of dementia.

“Pessimism Can Bring Dementia!”

That is the kind of enthusiastic headline sparked by this study. “To Age Well, Change How You Feel About Aging” was another encouraging headline. The problem is that the chicken vs. egg issue is yet to be resolved. Scientists have not figured out which comes first, whether negative attitudes cause dementia or if it’s the other way around.

The Alzheimer’s Association director of scientific programs and outreach, Keith Fargo, argued that the study does not prove that negative attitudes about aging cause mental decline. He explained that the study showed only an association between beliefs and dementia risk.

Fargo argued that it could possibly be that some of the older people studied were already in the early stages of dementia, which had not yet been diagnosed. This could have influenced their negative attitudes to aging. He cautioned that older people should not feel that they can simply “think their way” in or out of dementia.

It is worth noting that this study is not the first to link positive thinking to positive aging. A previous study by Ireland’s Trinity College showed that positive attitudes to getting older can limit frailty and sharpen minds in older people.

What kind of Positive Thinking?

It may be important to clarify what exactly is meant by thinking positively. For example, the approach promoted by pastor Norman Vincent Peale in his 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, was criticised as disempowering.

I prefer the approach of the respected Mayo Clinic in the US. To encourage positive thoughts they suggest focusing on “self-talk”. The aim is to intervene in that endless stream of thoughts running through your mind, which can often be negative. This helps to cut down on self-criticism and build self-acceptance. As a result you may be less critical and more accepting of whatever life brings over the years.

I tried to think positive but it didn't work

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Is this is sounding a bit ESTD? (Easier Said Than Done. That’s another bonus of this column: you’re always learning new Internet Slang.) If so, here’s another tip from the experts on thinking positively: Practice talking the talk. Positive self-talk, that is.

Be kind to yourself

Just follow this one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. It makes you go easy on yourself, so that you feel encouraged to continue thinking positively.

Negative thoughts will inevitably float back into your head. The instruction is to stop and evaluate such thoughts rationally. You are advised to respond, in this private conversation with yourself, by affirming what’s good about you. You are further advised to do some thinking about all that you are grateful for in your life.

Lastly, please note that it’s not only our minds that we need to retrain. Society is full of ageism. That’s why the researchers of the landmark study, on the value of positive thinking for older people, have urged that governments launch public health campaigns to combat negative beliefs around aging.

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