Many people think there is no recovery from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — the memory loss and other cognitive deficits that start to crop up as a person ages. But that is not the case. More than half of people with MCI do regain cognitive function, although little is known about how and why they recover while others do not.
One of the secrets to successful aging may be having a positive attitude about getting older, a study from Yale University finds. People with mild cognitive impairment who had positive attitudes about aging had a 30 percent greater chance of recovering cognitive function than those who took a more negative view of the process.
Becca Levy, the lead author on the study, had predicted that positive age beliefs could play a role in cognitive recovery. In earlier work she had found that a good attitude about aging reduced the stress of cognitive challenges and gave older people more self-confidence about their ongoing mental abilities, while improving their cognitive function.
“Our previous research has demonstrated that age beliefs can be modified; therefore age-belief interventions at the individual and societal levels could increase the number of people who experience cognitive recovery,” she explained.
People who had generally positive attitudes about aging had a 30 percent greater chance of recovering cognitive function than those who took a more negative view of the process. Their recovery persisted regardless of the severity of MCI at the start of the study.
Japan is one country that celebrates aging and its older population. It also has one of the longest average lifespans in the world. In that country, Levy pointed out, older people are held in high esteem in many ways. “Older people are featured almost like rock stars on some TV shows and reality shows, and those who are over 100 are treated like celebrities.”
The current study used data from more than 1,700 participants in the Healthy Retirement Study. Participants were 65 years old or older, had been diagnosed with an MCI at enrollment, and underwent at least one follow-up assessment of cognitive function. Their beliefs and attitudes toward aging were also measured using the Attitude Toward Own Aging tool in the Philadelphia Geriatric Morale Scale. Participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “As you get older, you are less useful.” They were placed into one of two groups according to whether or not they had largely positive or negative beliefs about aging.
Over the 12-year follow-up period, those with positive beliefs toward aging recovered their cognitive abilities about two years earlier than those who saw aging more negatively. Cognitive recovery persisted regardless of the severity of MCI at the start of the study.
Going forward, Levy says she and her team want to better understand the biological and psychological factors affecting cognition and the kinds of health choices connected to positive attitudes about age that can lead to cognitive recovery.
The study is published in JAMA Network Open.