Absorbing positive views on aging—rather than being mired in negative stereotypes about old people—can help older adults regain memory.
According to a new study by the Yale School of Public Health, older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were 30% more likely to regain normal cognition if they had absorbed positive views on aging from their culture, compared with those who had taken in negative beliefs.
Researchers also found that these positive beliefs helped participants recover their cognition up to two years earlier than those with negative beliefs. This cognitive recovery advantage was found regardless of the baseline MCI severity, according to the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open.
“We went into the study with a hypothesis. But the degree to which people recovered from MCI was stunning,” said Becca Levy, Yale professor of public health and psychology and lead author of the study.
MCI includes problems with memory, language or judgment before the more serious stage of dementia. People with MCI may be aware that their memory or mental function has “slipped,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Levy, who is also the author of “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” said the researchers went into the study with a hypothesis that positive age beliefs could play an important role in cognitive recovery based on her previous experimental studies with older adults. That earlier research found that your thoughts on aging can reduce the stress caused by cognitive challenges, increased self-confidence about cognition, and improved cognitive performance.
“It is widely assumed that individuals who develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) will not recover. Yet nearly half of older persons with MCI regain normal cognition. The reason for this improvement is not well understood. This study is the first, to our knowledge, to consider whether a culture-based factor—positive age beliefs—contributes to MCI recovery,” according to the study.
Among participants with normal cognition at the start, those with positive age beliefs were significantly less likely to develop MCI over the following 12 years compared with those with negative age views, the study found.
“We take our beliefs from culture and start absorbing these beliefs as young as 3 years old. Our beliefs on older people can come from social media, advertising, the antiaging industry, movies or books. It can differ quite a bit between cultures,” Levy said.
The researchers didn’t define what age “old” was, but instead let the participants determine for themselves how they viewed older adults, Levy said.
“This suggests that as a society we should think about ways to reduce ageism because we can take in these thoughts and images at a young age. Start talking about positive age beliefs in kindergarten and continue throughout life,” Levy said.
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For those who grew up with negative views on aging, there is still hope.
“The ideal would be to prevent us from taking in negative beliefs in the first place. But we have found that people can change their age beliefs at any age,” Levy said.
As a result, the study suggested that age-belief interventions at individual and societal levels could increase the number of people who experience cognitive recovery.
“There’s hope. And there’s positive work to be done,” Levy said.