Train yourself to see the glass half full. Not only will you live longer, you’ll reduce your risk of dementia.
Researchers at University College London have shown that repetitive negative thinking changes the structure of our brain and predisposes to Alzheimer’s disease. The groundbreaking study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s and Dementia in June 2020 and Channel 9 Today Extra asked me to clarify the findings.
Click here to watch the interview.
Below is a transcript.
What exactly does repetitive negative thinking entail?
Repetitive negative thinking refers to
- Habitually replaying unhappy experiences in your mind
- Ruminating about past failures
- Going over and over things you can’t change
- Constantly criticising yourself or beating yourself up for your mistakes
- Always worrying about the future
- Frequently feeling anxious
The key point is that it’s a habitual way of thinking, not an occasional thought. It’s normal to feel down about things from time to time but if it’s your default state, it starts to affect your brain.
The study revealed that negative thinkers have greater deposits of two proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Can you explain?
People over the age of 55 — that’s the age group that was studied — who had a pessimistic outlook and spent more time thinking negatively, had greater cognitive decline and a worse memory than did optimists. They then underwent PET scans (positron emission tomography) of their brains and were found to have more abnormal beta-amyloid and tau proteins, both of which are linked to Alzheimer’s.
Clumps of beta-amyloid form plaques that destroy connections between brain cells.
Misshapen tau proteins create tangles inside brain cells that lead to cell death.
Therefore the study shows that our thoughts actually have a physical impact on our brain.
The study also found there was greater cognitive decline in those who already live with anxiety and depression, is that right?
Yes. Chronic depression and anxiety have long been know to increase the risk of dementia and particularly Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia. In fact chronic depression is a bigger risk factor for heart disease than is smoking. And again, the critical point is chronic not occasional depression. We also know that what’s bad for the heart is bad for the brain. So the message is not to get even more depressed about being depressed but to do everything you can to turn it around.
So if you’re struggling with negative thoughts, how can you train your brain to be more optimistic?
- There are lots of small things you can do that sustained over time can make a big difference.
- Start each day by writing down what you feel grateful for. Don’t underestimate the power of counting your blessings
- Set personally meaningful goals. We are happiest not when we have everything we want but when we’re working towards something that gives us a sense of purpose. In particular, we feel most fulfilled when we contribute to others.
- Doing random acts of kindness lifts our mood and interrupts negative thinking.
- Reframe failure as feedback. If things don’t turn out as planned, tell yourself ‘this is feedback —what can I learn from the experience to get a better result next time?’
- Focus on the present — on the here and now. Not on past events that you can’t change.
- Learn to meditate — this is invaluable.
- Don’t forget that a regular good night’s sleep, physical exercise, spending time in nature and avoiding junk food all significantly reduce depression and anxiety.
- Our diet has a big impact on our mental health. Eat more fruit & veg and cook more at home.
- Stay socially connected and deepen your relationships. Loneliness and social isolation are two of the biggest risk factors for both depression and dementia.
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