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Positively Mind Bending

Attitude Impacts Aging & Memory

By John Salak –

This is definitely a case of mind over matter. Staying cheerful and enthusiastic isn’t just a pleasant way to go through life, it may make your life easier to live.

Researchers from Northwestern University found that having an upbeat outlook, what they called a “positive affect,” helps individuals thwart memory loss as they age. Ultimately, the results just add to the growing research that underscores the significant impact a person’s attitude has on how they age.

Northwestern’s findings were based on data from almost 1,000 middle-aged and older adults that was collected in three different segments between 1995 and 2014. During each assessment, participants were asked to list the positive experiences they had during the last 30 days. The final two assessments also included memory tests for the participants. The approach allowed researchers to determine the association between positive affect and memory decline, while also accounting for age, gender, education, depression, negative affect and extroversion, which covers a person finding joy outside themselves.

“Our findings showed that memory declined with age,” said Claudia Haase, an associate professor at Northwestern and the senior author on the paper.

“However, individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade,” added Emily Hittner, a PhD graduate of Northwestern University and the paper’s lead author.

Hittner and Haase intend to use these results as a launch point for additional research to identify deeper insights on the links between emotion and the physical and mental health of mature individuals.

What triggers or maintains a positive affect isn’t completely understood and may differ from one individual to the next. However, social engagement and loneliness seem to be factors, according to another study out of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

What may be more interesting is that researchers found that loneliness was highest among individuals in their 20s and lowest among those in their 60s.

Levels of loneliness in individuals can and do shift with age, meaning a person can become more or less lonely in one age cycle compared to another. However, researchers found that many of the loneliness triggers or predictors remained consistent during almost all life stages.

“Loneliness is a prevalent and serious public health problem impacting health, well-being and longevity,” the California study noted. The results were based on surveys of almost 3,000 individuals, ages 20 to 69.

“What we found was a range of predictors of loneliness across the lifespan,” said corresponding senior author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, a senior associate dean at the school of medicine. These factors include having lower levels of empathy and compassion, smaller social networks, not having a spouse or a partner and experiencing greater sleep disturbances. High anxiety and a person not having confidence in their ability to exert control over their own motivation, behavior and social environment were other factors.

“Compassion seems to reduce the level of loneliness at all ages, probably by enabling individuals to accurately perceive and interpret others’ emotions along with helpful behavior toward others, and thereby increasing their own social self-efficacy and social networks,” said Jeste.

Certainly, different life stages see somewhat different triggers as well. Younger individuals, for example, may be stressed over careers and finding a life partner, while middle age adults can face control issues as they start to experience health challenges, perhaps lose loved ones and spouses and have their children grow up and become more independent.

Isolation at any time but particularly during the current COVID-19 global pandemic is another potential trigger for all life stages that can have long-standing ramifications.

“We want to understand what strategies may be effective in reducing loneliness during this challenging time,” said Jeste. “Loneliness is worsened by the physical distancing that is necessary to stop the spread of the pandemic.”

The underlying theme of these and other studies, nonetheless, is the impact emotions has on a person’s physical wellbeing, especially as they age.





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