Jun 10, 2020

Negative thinking linked to higher rates of dementia


Are you a glass half empty kind of person? Do you tend to dwell on the negative, ruminate over the past, or worry incessantly about the future?

These ways of thinking not only make you feel lousy, researchers have shown they could also contribute to higher rates of dementia as you grow older.

Researchers from University College London Psychiatry found that in people aged over the age of 55, ‘repetitive negative thinking’ (RNT) was linked to cognitive decline and a build up of the proteins in the brain associated with the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The researchers are now recommending that RNT be considered as a potential risk factor for dementia, and have suggested that mindfulness or meditation be studied to see if they could reduce the risk of developing dementia.

The study

The researchers studied 360 people over the age of 55. Over two years, the participants responded to questions about how they deal with negative experiences, focusing on RNT patterns such as ruminating on negative past experiences and worrying about the future. The participants also recorded their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The researchers assessed the participants’ cognitive function, measuring memory, attention, spatial cognition, and language. 

Of the total, 113 underwent PET brain scans to measure deposits of tau and amyloid, the proteins that when accumulated in the brain cause the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.

Negative thinking erodes memory too

The researchers found that those with more RNT patterns experienced more cognitive decline over a four-year period, more memory decline, and they were more likely to have amyloid and tau deposits in their brain.

Depression and anxiety were also found to be associated with cognitive decline, but not with the build up of amyloid or tau in the brain, suggesting RNT could be the main reason depression and anxiety seem to lead to increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers proposed that RNT may trigger the body into developing signs of stress, for example, it could lead to higher blood pressure, which could in turn lead to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Previous studies have shown that stress can lead to the build up of amyloid and tau in the brain.

Meditation and mindfulness may reduce risk of dementia

The good news is that people can learn to think more positively, and researchers hope to find out if reducing RNT could reduce the risk of dementia. 

Lead author Dr Natalie Marchant from UCL Psychiatry, and co-author Dr Gael Chételat, from Université de Caen-Normandie, as well as other European researchers, are already working on a large project to see if meditation may help reduce the risk of dementia in old age.

Mindfulness training or targeted talk therapy are other ways to reduce negative thinking.

Dr Chételat said, “Our thoughts can have a biological impact on our physical health, which might be positive or negative.”

“Looking after your mental health is important, and it should be a major public health priority.”

Short-term bouts don’t have the same impact

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society, which supported the research, said short-term periods of distress do not have the same impact.

“During these unstable times, we are hearing from people every day on our Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Connect line who are feeling scared, confused, or struggling with their mental health,” she said. 

“So it’s important to point out that this isn’t saying a short-term period of negative thinking will cause Alzheimer’s disease. 

“Mental health could be a vital cog in the prevention and treatment of dementia; more research will tell us to what extent.”


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