- New research ties positive thoughts about aging to better recovery from mild cognitive issues.
- The reason for the link isn’t entirely clear.
- Experts say it’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re having issues with memory or thinking.
Issues with memory and thinking are more common as you get older, but it’s not a given that everyone will experience them. With that, it’s understandable to want to do what you can to get better if you find you’re suddenly being forgetful or struggling to think clearly.
Now, a new study published in JAMA Open Network suggests that positive thinking about aging may help people better recover from mild cognitive impairment than those who don’t have as sunny an outlook.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 1,716 older adults (age 65 and up) who were recovering from mild cognitive impairment. The study participants were assessed for how positive they felt about aging and asked to answer questions on a scale how much they agreed or disagreed with statements, like “The older I get, the more useless I feel.”
The researchers found that people who had positive thoughts about aging had a 30.2% greater chance of recovering from mild cognitive impairment than those who had negative thoughts about getting older—and that was true regardless of how severe their mild cognitive impairment was at the start of the study.
The researchers also found that people who had normal cognition at the start of the study and had positive views on aging were significantly less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment over the next 12 years than those who had negative thoughts about getting older.
“Considering that positive age beliefs can be strengthened, our findings suggest that age-belief interventions at individual and societal levels could increase the number of people who experience cognitive recovery,” the researchers concluded in the study.
But why might positive thinking influence mild cognitive impairment, and when should you see a doctor for this? Experts break it down.
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What is mild cognitive impairment?
Mild cognitive impairment (or MCI) is memory or thinking problems that aren’t as severe as something like dementia, but are noticeable, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Mild cognitive impairment is something that is diagnosed at a doctor’s office, says Amit Sachdev, M.D., medical director in the department of neurology at Michigan State University—it’s not diagnosed with a CT scan or MRI. “It suggests that something about clarity of thought is not quite right,” he says. “This observation does not explain why the thinking is unclear.”
According to the NIA, signs of mild cognitive impairment can include:
- Losing things often
- Forgetting to go to events or appointments
- Having more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age
While not as common, difficulty moving and problems with the sense of smell have also been linked to mild cognitive impairment, the NIA says.
There are a few different things that can cause mild cognitive impairment, including vitamin B12 deficiency or thyroid disease, along with certain medications, Dr. Sachdev says. “It is not surprising that MCI could improve,” he adds.
Why might positive thinking help with mild cognitive impairment?
It’s important to point out that the study didn’t find that positive thinking about aging made a person’s mild cognitive impairment go away. Instead, the researchers found that there was a link between people who had a more positive outlook on aging and recovering from mild cognitive impairment.
Still, experts say the findings aren’t shocking. “It makes sense from a psychological perspective,” says psychologist Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “If you believe that age is a limiting factor, you’re likely going to meet whatever ceiling you place on yourself. If you don’t believe that, maybe it can even help change the function of your brain.”
People with positive views on aging may also just have better health habits. “I have previous research that looked at the impact of ageism and we found that those with more positive age beliefs tend to have lower stress levels and tend to engage in better health behaviors,” says lead study author Becca Levy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University and professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health. “Those factors can continue to better cognition or cognitive health.”
Paul Newhouse, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine, agrees. “People who feel more positive about the aging process may have better health overall and less likely to develop cognitive impairment,” he says. “It’s a bit of a chicken versus egg problem.”
But the reason for the link may also be as simple as having a positive outlook on life makes people more motivated to seek help and treatment for mild cognitive impairment once they realize it’s an issue, Dr. Sachdev says.
Of course, positive thinking may not work for everyone. “The key question is why does MCI exist,” Dr. Sachdev says. “If MCI exists because Alzheimer’s or other dementia changes exist in the brain, then the prognosis is that the impairment will get worse with time rather than better. A positive outlook may not lead to a curable intervention for MCI.”
The researchers wrote in the study that this is thought to be the first to consider whether someone’s beliefs about aging can influence their recovery from mild cognitive impairment, so Gallagher points out that there’s still a lot of research to be done in this area.
How is mild cognitive impairment usually treated?
Given that mild cognitive impairment can be caused by a range of things, the NIA points out that there’s no standard of care for it. Meaning, there’s not a pill or drug you can take that will make it better in every situation. Instead, Dr. Sachdev says that doctors will often try to figure out if there are medical, psychological, medication, or neurologic reasons why MCI could exist. “Start with the basics: general medical and medication, he says.
The NIA also recommends doing the following on your own to try to sharpen your memory and manage your symptoms:
- Learn a new skill
- Follow a daily routine
- Plan tasks, make to-do lists, and use memory tools such as calendars and notes
- Put your wallet or purse, keys, phone, and glasses in the same place each day
- Stay involved in activities that can help both the mind and body
- Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship
- Spend time with friends and family
- Get enough sleep, generally seven to eight hours each night
- Exercise and eat well
- Prevent or control high blood pressure
- Don’t drink a lot of alcohol
- Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time
Mild cognitive impairment can be an early sign of more serious memory issues, so it’s important to follow up with a doctor every six to 12 months who can keep track of changes in your memory and thinking skills, the NIA says.
It may be worth trying to add positive thinking about aging into the mix, too, Gallagher says. “It can’t hurt,” she says. Dr. Sachdev agrees. “A positive outlook generally extends life expectancy and is always the right answer,” he says.
If you’re struggling to think positively about getting older, Gallagher recommends acknowledging the way you think about aging and trying to tweak it. “Just because you feel a certain way about something, doesn’t mean that’s the way it is,” she says. “Some of the negative things we think about aging is cultural, and we need to work hard against internalizing some of these beliefs.”
If you feel like you’re having negative thoughts about aging, Gallagher recommends challenging yourself to see how you would respond if a loved one had the same thoughts. “Instead of, I’m going to fade into the sunset, really start to think about what you have to offer, like more self confidence and wisdom,” she says.
Levy also recommends trying to be more aware of the messaging you’re getting around aging. “Keep an age-belief journal and become more aware of what is said about older people, as well as whether they’re included in conversations or not,” she says. “Doing that for a week can be a beneficial first step.”
Gallagher also suggests being mindful of the language you use when you speak about yourself. “I see older people use self deprecating language all the time, like I don’t know how to do this or I’m too old for this—it’s not helpful,” she says.
When to see a doctor about mild cognitive impairment
If you suspect you might have mild cognitive impairment, it’s time to seek help. “I recommend that people seek an assessment for memory impairment when it becomes noticeable on a consistent basis to themselves and others,” Dr. Newhouse says. “In other words, if the individual or their family members notice a consistent change in cognitive or memory abilities, then that is a warning sign that needs to be heeded.”
That’s especially true if your symptoms start to interfere with your ability to manage your life, he says. From there, your doctor should be able to work with you try to figure out the source of your mild cognitive impairment—and help you figure out how to manage it going forward.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.