Research from the University of College London suggests that repeated negative thinking is a new risk factor for dementia. If you are a pessimist by nature thinking the glass is half empty most of your life, you may like to consider doing positive thinking exercises to train your mind.
Proteins linked to Alzheimer’s Increased in Pessimists
In the study, 350 people over the age of 55 were measured for negative thinking behaviours – such as rumination about the past and worry about the future for a period of two years. A third of the participants underwent PET (positron emission tomography) brain scan to measure deposits of tau and beta amyloid, the two proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. The scans revealed that people who spent more time thinking negatively had more tau and beta amyloid buildup, had worse memory and cognitive decline over a four-year period compared to those who were more optimistic.
However, the tau and beta amyloid deposits did not increase in the already depressed and anxious people. This led researchers to suspect repeated negative thinking may be why anxiety and depression contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
Our Thoughts Impact Our Health
According to Dr. Richard Isaacson of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at NYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center, this is the first study showing a biological relationship between repetitive negative thinking and Alzheimer’s pathology. The study could help physicians change the way they care for patients at risk.
“Our thoughts can have a biological impact on our physical health”, said coauthor of the study Dr. Gael Chételat of Inserm/ Université de Caen-Normandie. Looking after our mental health is not only important for health and well-being in the short term but also could impact our eventual risk for dementia.
The Mind Can Be Trained
Previous research has also shown that people who look at life from a positive perspective have better chances of avoiding death from any type of cardiovascular risk than pessimists. Other research has also found a direct link between optimism and other positive health attributes such as a healthier diet and exercise behaviours to a stronger immune system and better lung function. Researchers have also suggested that practices such as meditation help to train the mind and promote positive thinking while reducing negative thoughts.
Positive Thinking Exercises to Train the Mind
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology in his book “Flourish” talked about well-being as a construct. The idea that well-being is attained only when we get what we want – such as satisfying a sense pleasure or attaining a big corporate title and wealth – has produced more unhappiness and stress than well-being.
Seligman proposed that well-being is supported by positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement, which he termed PERMA. Positive emotion, supported by positive thinking can be trained with one of positive psychology exercises Seligman termed “What Went Well”. This exercise is incorpoated into Mindfulness-Based Strategic Awareness Training (MBSAT) as “3 Good Things” exercise.
3 Good Things is part of MBSAT practice where participants are asked to record the three good things that went well in the day. The good things need not be earth shaking but just simple things we missed out. Such as having good health or even having a meal with the family.
This gratitude practice has worked well as a positive thinking exercise and has been taught not only to students in Seligman’s classes but to health workers globally. The reason why writing down what we feel grateful about in our day works is because our brain are not wired for positivity. We spend more time dwelling and analysing negative events than good ones. We needed to be on the side of caution when our ancestors were fighting off mammoths in the Ice Age and finding ways to survive.
Take ten minutes every day before you go to bed and experiment with the 3 Good Things exercise by writing them down in your journal. You can also include “why did this happen?” alongside the event. For example, if your husband picked up ice-cream for you, you could write “because my husband is really thoughtful at times” beside the event.
Or, you can consider attending our MBSAT online course, which is an 8-week mindfulness training to help you gain new habits in your mind towards a positive mindset.