Negative thinking linked to dementia later in life, study finds

Business Insider US
  • A study found a link between repetitive negative thinking and dementia.
  • The study, conducted on 360 people, found negative thinkers had increased deposits of two proteins responsible with Alzheimer's disease.
  • One of the authors said the results suggest meditation could hold more clinical benefits than we realise.
  • The study had limitations: the majority of participants were white and female.
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Obsessively worrying about the future or fixating on your problems could have serious ramifications for your future health, according to a new study from University College London.

The study, involving brain scans and behaviour monitoring on 360 people, found a link between negative thinking and cognitive decline, as well as an increased amounts of two proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.

"A better understanding of risks for dementia is vital for improved therapeutic interventions," study author Natalie Marchant, a psychiatrist and senior research fellow in the department of mental health at University College London, told Insider. "The findings from this study lend further support for the importance of mental health to be considered in screening for dementia."

Currently, doctors use brain scans and cognitive exams to test for dementia, but screening for mental health issues may be part of future clinical treatments for patients in the early stages of the disease.

Ruminating on things was linked to protein build-up in the brain

The study was published in Alzheimer's and Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

For two years, 360 participants, all over the age of 55, with a relative who had past or current dementia, were monitored for negative thinking behaviours. The majority of them were white, and 73% were female.

Those negative thinking behaviors included continued worrying about the future and continual thinking about their problems or emotions. Participants filled out surveys on depression and anxiety symptoms and had their cognitive functions assessed. Those functions included memory, language, and attention span.

Just over a third (113) of the participants underwent PET brain scans, which revealed deposits of tau and beta amyloid proteins, warning signs doctors look for to detect Alzheimer's in its early stages.

They found that people with more repetitive negative thinking patterns were more likely to have protein build-ups in their brain. Those same people also had higher rates of cognitive decline.

We should interrogate the clinical benefits of meditation, one expert said

Depression and anxiety are known risk factors for Alzheimer's, but this study seeks to explain the underlying reasons as to why.

Examining the negative ways people with depression and anxiety think, and the long term effects that might have, might explain why depression and anxiety remain risk factors.

Study co-author Dr. Gael Chételat, of the Université de Caen-Normandie, suggested that "mental training practices such as meditation might help promoting positivity while down-regulating negative-associated mental schemes."

More research is needed to understand if this finding is universal

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a disease that causes brain cells to waste away, and is characterised by a decline in cognitive and social skills, as well as a loss of independent functioning.

It is crucial for doctors to detect the disease early, given there is no known cure. Identifying potential risk factors is necessary for preventative treatment.

However, Merchant told Insider more work is needed to understand how universal these findings could be, particularly for other racial groups, including African Americans, who are often underrepresented in Alzheimer's research but appear to have a much higher risk of the disease.

"The overwhelming majority of participants were Caucasian so we were unable to make any meaningful comment about potential racial differences," Merchant told Insider.

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer's Society, concurred.

"Most of the people in the study were already identified as being at higher risk of Alzheimer's disease," Carragher said, "so we would need to see if these results are echoed within the general population and if repeated negative thinking increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease itself."

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