Research now suggests that it’s not only stress and anxiety that contribute to cognitive decline, but also persistent negative thinking too.
In a recent study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, scientists and psychologists have discovered a causal link between the formation of harmful proteins accumulating in the brain and both diseases.
Lead researcher, Dr Natalie Marchant at UCL said, “Depression and anxiety in midlife and old age are already known to be a risk factor for dementia. Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia.”
The team, together with another in Normandie, France, analysed 360 people aged 55 and over, for a 2 year period. They recorded their responses to questions about their perceptions of negative experiences, paying particular attention to repetitive patterns of thought, such as past worries or fears about the future. In addition to this, researchers measured their levels of depression and anxiety against standard parameters.
All were then assessed for their attention, memory, spatial awareness and language functions. Some of the participants went on to have brain scans, which allowed the team to measure the deposition of the two harmful proteins.
Given all the data this research generated, Marchant and her colleagues found that those who registered as persistent negative thinkers experienced more cognitive decline over the course of the study. People with poor memory scores were much more likely to have a build up of proteins, amyloid and tau, in their brain tissues.
Although depression and anxiety are associated with cognitive decline in later life, they do not have a causal relationship with amyloid and Tau plaques. This suggests that persistent negative thought patterns could be the link between depression and Alzheimer’s risks.
Dr Marchant said, “We propose that repetitive negative thinking may be a new risk factor for dementia as it could contribute to dementia in a unique way.” Her supposition is that those negative thought patterns impact disorders by way of increasing blood pressure and other stress related physiological conditions. These factors can also increase the levels of amyloid and tau deposition in the brain.
A collaborating team at the Université de Caen- Normandie, led by Dr Gael Chételat, claimed that our thoughts can have a direct biological impact on our health. The French researchers suggest that mental training practices such as meditation could break the negative thought patterns, thus down-regulating those active regions of the brain with the aim of limiting the amyloid and tau deposition.
Both teams of researchers are hopeful of expanding their studies to see if interventions such as mindfulness can reduce dementia risks by supporting mental health as people age. This glimpse into the potential of mental therapies is exciting. The more we understand how our choice of thoughts influence our health, the better equipped we will all be in heading off such frightening and debilitating disorders in the future.
Although times are particularly difficult right now, it’s important to note that both teams stress that short term negative thinking would not significantly increase the risks of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, but having that knowledge could prompt greater numbers of people to take mental health more seriously and begin to foster positivism as a shield against issues later in life.
Meditation and mindfulness practices cost nothing but a little time and dedication. A positive habit formed now could make all the difference to our cognitive state in the future.