Published on: May 8, 2019
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Are you a glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of person? Your answer to this question – which reflects your tendency to be either an optimist (half full) or a pessimist (half empty) – not only affects your overall life perspective, but also impacts your physical and mental well-being.
Optimism is the quality of having hope or confidence about the successful outcome of a future occurrence. It refers to believing that something good will happen or emphasizing the positive aspects of a situation.
An individual who is pessimistic, on the other hand, expects the worst, blames him or herself for negative outcomes, and expects those outcomes to be permanent or unrealistically long-lasting.
Optimism is good for you
Research shows that optimism is good for your health in numerous ways, both psychologically and physically. For example, optimists tend to experience better recovery rates after surgery, improved cancer survival rates, better cardiovascular health, lower rates of depression, and longer life spans. They also tend to have lower stress levels and cope better with the amounts of stress that they do encounter.
Several studies have suggested that optimism may affect cognitive function as well.
Attitudes About Aging Matter
Pessimism involves negative thinking about the future. One form of negative thinking that is prevalent in many Western cultures is regarding the aging process with dread. Dr. Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, and her colleagues sought to examine the impact of negative age stereotypes on brain structure and pathology. To do so, the research team analyzed the data of 158 individuals who enrolled in the brain-neuroimaging program of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.
“We discovered that participants known to hold more negative age stereotypes earlier in life had significantly higher loss of volume in their hippocampal area and significantly greater accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques,” explained Dr. Levy. “These are changes that tend to happen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.” These findings, which were published in Psychology & Aging in 2016, suggest a new pathway to identifying mechanisms and potential interventions related to the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s disease.
More recently, Dr. Levy’s team published additional research that demonstrated that positive attitudes about aging were linked with reduced risk of dementia in older adults. “We found the protective effect of positive beliefs about old age applied to all participants, even those carrying a gene that puts them at higher risk of developing dementia (APOE e4),” said Dr. Levy. “Among APOE e4 carriers, those who held positive aging beliefs were 50% less likely to develop dementia than those who held negative aging beliefs.” (These findings appeared in the February 2018 issue of PLOS ONE.)
It is clear that we should all strive to adopt a more positive outlook on aging – both individually and collectively as a society. And, the good news is, previous research conducted by Dr. Levy and colleagues – published in Psychological Science in 2014 – has shown that it is possible to strengthen positive aging beliefs.
Optimism’s Impact on People Who Already Have Dementia
Dr. Linda Clare, a professor at the University of Exeter and Director of the Centre for Research in Ageing and Cognitive Health (REACH), and her colleagues recently examined what helps individuals with dementia “live well.” The researchers asked 1,547 participants diagnosed with mild to moderate dementia to rate their quality of life, satisfaction with life, and well-being.
The findings were combined into one overall “living well” score. A variety of factors were analyzed to assess their impact on the living well score. “A wide range of factors were found to play a role in living well for people with dementia,” explained Dr. Clare. “Psychological factors, including optimism, were found to be closely linked to the ability to optimize quality of life and well-being.” The research suggests that being optimistic, even when facing dementia, has enormous benefit.
Optimism’s Effect on Caregivers
In the same U.K. study conducted by Dr. Clare and colleagues, the researchers also surveyed 1,283 caregivers of individuals with dementia, asking the same questions in order to establish a “living well” score for each of them. The researchers discovered that positive psychological states, including optimism, were also strongly related to living well amongst caregivers.
“Our research sheds new light on what factors play a key role in maximizing quality of life and well-being for people with dementia and their caregivers, and optimism is one of the key factors on that list,” said Dr. Clare. “We hope that our findings are used to inform the type of support provided to the millions of people facing dementia worldwide, as well as to those who care for them.” (These findings were published in the December 2018 issue of Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders.)
A research team from Spain, led by Dr. Pablo Ruisoto from the University of Salamanca, also explored the association between optimism and quality of life amongst caregivers of individuals with dementia, and reached similar conclusions. The researchers worked with a sample of 130 participants with dementia and their informal caregivers, having each complete a comprehensive assessment. The analysis, published in International Psychogeriatrics in July 2018, revealed that optimism was consistently linked with better well-being and quality of life for the caregivers.
Optimism Can Be Learned
Experts believe that optimism is only partly determined by one’s genetics, and therefore there is great potential for optimism to be learned at any point in life. In other words, even if someone has tended to be extremely pessimistic his or her entire life, it is not too late to develop a more optimistic outlook.
Shifting to a more optimistic way of thinking begins with setting the intention to do so. Then, you might focus on shifting your inner self-talk to be more positive; the Mayo Clinic describes this as an important technique for achieving a higher level of optimism.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available (both online and on the shelves of your local library or bookstore) that can help you learn about optimism and how to integrate positive thinking into your life, including the following:
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V8
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