A woman emerges smiling from a flower.

Aging is Cool: Thinking Positively About Getting Older Can Prevent Dementia

My family of 5 moved into a new house just before my mom who lives with Alzheimer's disease moved in with us. The house is situated near the bottom of a canyon at the foot of the mountains, which is a beautiful spot.

But some days the wind howls down that canyon into our neighborhood like a crazed animal. The trees pound against our roof, and large branches have crashed into the yard. It can be frightening. I never know when it's going to come, and I can't make it stop.

Getting older sometimes feels a bit like that nature temper tantrum. It's one of the things in life that is inevitable and also completely out of our control. We don't know when the end is going to come, and we can't make it stop.

That makes us automatically think aging is bad. And aging with a cognitive disease? It's considered by most to be the worst death sentence ever. But why does aging get such a bad rap? And what if thinking positively about it might be powerful enough to protect against dementia?

An eternal fixation on the fountain of youth

Humankind has been obsessed with youth for thousands of years – just look at the countless tales of the mythical fountain of youth. This elixir of life is ever out of our reach, yet the hope of it persists across practically every civilization and culture.

I think it's accurate to say that nobody wants to get old. And, just as importantly, nobody wants to die.

There are the peculiar few who enjoy adding notches to the birthday belt. Maybe they like the respect and wisdom that only comes with experience. But even the most optimistic of the bunch might waver as they inch into their 70s, 80s, or older.

It's not easy getting older, and in the case of disease, sometimes it can be downright miserable and humiliating.

This or That

Do you fear getting older?

Thinking positively might actually change our brains

Can the way we think about aging actually improve our cognition? A recent study sought to answer this.

A person with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) has more memory or thinking problems than someone else their age. But they don't affect their activities of daily living like someone with Alzheimer's dementia.1

Some wrongly assume that people with MCI don't ever recover. But in reality, nearly half of older people with MCI regain normal cognition.1

Researchers for 1 study asked patients with MCI to rate themselves on this statement: "The older I get, the more useless I feel." They found that if you are 1 of those people who think positively about aging, you are more likely to recover from MCI.2

In the study, the positive age-belief group was over 30 percent more likely to recover than the negative age-belief group. Not only that, but the positive thinkers also recovered more quickly (2 years faster, on average).2

There also are other encouraging studies that indicate older adults with positive self-perceptions of age have a longer life span and have better functional health than those with negative age self-perceptions.3

Positivity is a super strength – even over dementia

What about those living with Alzheimer's disease? One study found that negative thinking can increase risk of Alzheimer's disease later in life.4

But the same is true of the opposite: Researchers have found that those who have positive age beliefs are significantly less likely to develop dementia – even those who carry the APOE ε4 gene! This is a really big deal.5

How can positive thinking combat powerful genetic risk factors? Researchers think it could be because negative thoughts about age can increase stress. Conversely, thinking positively about age can help protect against the negative effects of stress (stress has been linked to the development of dementia).5

It seems that the way we simply think about aging can make us more or less likely to develop dementia.5

Societal change starts with the individual

All of these studies have mentioned the need to change age beliefs. Doing so could actually increase the number of people who recover from cognitive decline and prevent many from developing the disease in the first place.2,5

But how do you start changing an entire society's chronic ageism? It must start with the individual. The way we think about aging, talk about aging, and how we talk to people who are older all make a difference.

When something is important to an individual, it grows into something important to a group, then to a community, then to a society. And when society sees the importance of an issue like dignified aging, maybe there would be a radical change in how our world is designed.

Our world might offer more services and programs that help older people feel more human and still a part of the world. It might help younger people design schedules and work environments to incorporate older people so they can continue participating in meaningful work.

It might also give more specific and helpful healthcare to older people so they get the comfort and quality of life they deserve.

Creating a world where aging is respected, not feared

When I became a full-time caregiver for my mom, I saw with new eyes the need to honor and provide dignity for those who are aging with a cognitive disease – and those aging in general.

I think carefully about how to talk about aging and dementia with my young children. My family deliberately chose our church family in part because it has a multi-generational community. We invest with neighbors and friends who are all ages. It's not easy or perfect, but it's a start.

Let's consider how we can live in a world where age is respected and dignified. And maybe, just maybe, we can move a little closer to a world without dementia.

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