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A positive attitude can protect your memory as you age. Here’s how to improve your outlook



A glass half full—when it comes to aging, anyway—could help you recover from a health setback.

That’s according to a letter from Yale School of Public Health researchers published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open. 

They followed more than 1,700 older Americans—with a mean age of 78 years—for more than a decade. Participants who had a common type of memory loss known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but a positive attitude about aging—who did not agree with statements like, “The older I get, the more useless I feel”—were 30% more likely to eventually regain normal cognitive functioning than those with negative views, they found.

Those with optimistic views generally recovered more quickly, too—on average, two years quicker than those with more pessimistic views.

A sunny outlook also seemed protective for those with normal cognition. From the outset, they were less likely to have MCI, and they were “significantly” less likely to develop it over a 12-year period.

Most people tend to believe it’s impossible to recover from MCI, but that’s simply not true, Becca Levy, a professor of public health and lead author of the letter, says in a news release on it.

“In fact, half of those who have it do recover,” she notes.

Previous studies have shown that positive beliefs about aging can reduce the stress caused by cognitive challenges, increase self-confidence about cognition, and improve cognitive performance. Still, little was known about “why some recover while others don’t,” she says. “That’s why we looked at positive age beliefs, to see if they would help provide an answer.”

Indeed, they did. 

And there’s more good news: Positive thoughts can be cultivated, as the authors point out—meaning that efforts to improve attitudes on aging at a societal level could improve cognitive health en masse.

Tips for living more positively

Having a positive attitude doesn’t entail burying your head in the sand when things get tough, according to the Mayo Clinic. It does, however, entail approaching obstacles like aging in a positive, productive way.

Here are a few tips from the clinic that can help keep your approach to life upbeat:

  • Catch your own negative self-talk and thinking. Forms of this may include magnifying the bad that happened during the day and minimizing the good, blaming yourself for bad things that happen in life, feeling obligated to do things you’re not obligated to do (and feeling guilty when you don’t do them), and holding yourself to unrealistic standards.
  • Aim to live positively. Set goals for yourself, use humor, plan to exercise about a half hour a day, surround yourself with positive people, and ensure your inner voice is gentle to yourself.
  • Rinse and repeat daily. Forming new thought patterns takes practice. To set yourself up for healthy thinking during the day, start each day mindful of the two aforementioned tips.

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