What could be worse than a COVID pandemic? How about the uptick in depression and anxiety that mental health experts have been reporting? Or how about the just, plain negative feelings that enforced quarantine, less social connectedness and social isolation or loss of a job can cause? We have heard from a number of studies over time that depression and anxiety contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Well, some recent research from University College London, McGill in Canada and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggests that even negative thinking can increase the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Over a four year study time frame the researchers followed one group of 292 people in what was called the PREVENT AD study and another smaller group and a group of 68 people in another study all over the age of 55. During those two years the researchers asked about people’s experiences, their anxieties, and their depression. They were looking for patterns that could tie in to what scientists call Repetitive Negative Thinking (RNT). They also measured cognitive abilities like attention, memory, spatial awareness and language and more than a third even had PET brain scans. The scans were used to chart any build-up of the amyloid and tau deposits on the brain.
They sorted the people into groups and found:
- Higher RNT people had more cognitive decline;
- Higher RNT folks also had more deposits of amyloid and tau;
- Higher depression and anxiety people may have had more cognitive decline, but not necessarily beta and amyloid deposits.
If you tie these together it suggests that it is repetitive negative thinking that may cause the dementia, not depression or anxiety alone even though RNT can predispose people to depression and anxiety.
It is well-established that mental health and physical health are linked, but these researchers get more specific about what mental health can do to physical or cognitive health. If you have an older loved one in your orbit, there is a distinct likelihood that they have had a lot less social contact during our extended quarantine. As you have been in communication with them have you noticed negative comments…and not just one negative comment, but a pattern?
A short period of negative thinking is not going to cause Alzheimer’s disease, but it can begin a pattern of negativity. Make it part of your mission not just to call and see if mom or dad need groceries or help with their internet. Make it a point to be part of their regular – maybe daily – “positive fix.” Maybe it’s a humorous anecdote, an inspirational quote or a cool Netflix comic segment. Every positive boost to your loved one’s mental health is a boost to their long term cognitive and physical health. Protect your loved ones from not just the COVID, but also from the toll that negativity can take. And while you are at it, protect yourself also. Just because the researchers focused only on 55+ year-olds does not mean that RNT is not bad for anyone of any age…get positive.
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.