Having a Positive Attitude About Aging May Help Boost Memory

Elderly black man smiling and looking at the camera

September 6, 2023

Having a positive attitude about growing older may counteract some of the memory deficits that commonly occur as people age, according to a new report. A positive attitude about aging may even reverse the memory decline of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a serious form of memory loss that can progress to full-blown dementia, the study found.

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

For the study, Dr. Levy and her colleague Martin Slade, a biostatistician and lecturer in internal medicine at Yale, looked at 1,716 men and women who were part of the large and ongoing Health and Retirement Study, which surveys older Americans and records their health over many years. All were 65 or older, and some had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment at the start of the study. Indications of MCI can include such signs as often losing things like your keys or your phone, forgetting to go to doctor’s appointments or social events, or having trouble coming up with the right words compared to friends of a similar age. By the end of the study, 12 years later, most of those in the study were in their 70s or 80s.

Participants underwent regular tests of memory and thinking skills over the 12-year course of the study. They also completed questionnaires about how they felt about growing older, which asked them to agree or disagree with such statements as:

  1. Things keep getting worse as I get older
  2. I have as much pep as I did last year
  3. The older I get, the more useless I feel
  4. As I get older, things are better than I thought they’d be
  5. I am as happy now as when I was younger.

Disagreeing with questions 1 and 3 each scored a point, while agreeing with statements 2, 4 and 5 each scored a point. Participants were ranked from 0 to 5, with a zero score indicating very negative attitudes about aging and a score of five indicating the most positive attitude toward aging.

The researchers found that those men and women with MCI who had the most positive attitudes about aging were 30 percent more likely to regain normal memory and thinking skills than those with the most negative age beliefs. Having positive beliefs about aging also enabled participants to recover from MCI two years earlier than those with negative beliefs.

Participants who had normal memory and thinking skills as well as positive age beliefs at the start of the study were less likely to develop MCI over the following 12 years compared to those with negative attitudes about growing older. Further, the prevalence of MCI at the start of the study was lower in those with positive age beliefs.

Earlier research has shown that positive age beliefs can help to reduce stress caused by cognitive challenges, increase self-confidence about cognition, and improve memory and thinking skills. People who feel positively about growing older may also be more likely to eat better and to get regular exercise, previous studies have shown, both of which may contribute to better brain health.

The researchers note that many people with negative attitudes about aging can learn to develop more positive beliefs about the aging process. They say that encouraging such positive beliefs may help some older people to maintain or improve their memory skills as they age, although positive beliefs about aging may have little effect on those with progressive illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.

Some medical conditions, such as a deficiency in vitamin B12 or thyroid disease, or the side effects of certain medications, can contribute to cognitive impairment as we age. Your doctor can help assess whether such conditions may be contributing to memory problems. Attitudes about aging may also be a contributing factor.

“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 authors conclude.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Becca R. Levy, PhD; Martin D. Slade, PhD: “Role of Positive Age Beliefs in Recovery From Mild Cognitive Impairment Among Older Persons.” JAMA Network Open, April 12, 2023


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