How to hold off ageing and dementia with the power of positive thought
People who are positive about growing old have a lower risk of dementia than their negative peers. If they are active and have a good social life they will probably also live longer. We talk to Viswa Nathan, 81, who is living proof
Viswa Nathan is not your typical 81-year-old. The former editor of the Hong Kong Standard (now The Standard) from 1974 to 1980 – still works as a journalist and media services consultant.
He has an active social life and enjoys a whisky or three with friends when he goes out (the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club is one of his regular haunts).
He is as fit as a fiddle and doesn’t suffer from any age-related medical conditions. And, in addition to writing and editing manuscripts, the Hong Kong resident is also involved in the development of a farm in Masbate in the Philippines, where his wife was born.
Unlike many people his age and younger, Nathan doesn’t worry about getting older. “I’ve never had a negative attitude towards ageing,” he says. “I am an optimist and always have been. Life is precious and full of possibilities and I believe we are meant to enjoy every second of it.”
The way we think and talk about ageing is important. Research has shown that people who think positively about their own ageing process are happier and tend to live longer than people who dread getting older.
But a new study from the Yale School of Public Health has uncovered another benefit of thinking positively about ageing: it lowers your risk of dementia, a broad term that describes numerous conditions relating to a decline in cognitive function.
A progressive and irreversible disease, dementia is characterised by memory loss, a deterioration of motor skills, negative changes in social behaviour, and difficulties with thinking, problem solving or language. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.
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The study, which was published in February in the journal PLoS One, surveyed 4,765 “dementia free” elderly people; the average age of the participants was 72 years old. It found that positive beliefs surrounding old age had a protective effect on the brain. Participants who had positive thoughts about ageing had a 43.6 per cent lower risk of developing dementia over four years than those holding negative beliefs.
Positive thinking about ageing was also found to benefit those who were genetically predisposed to the condition. Of the total number of participants, 26 per cent carried a variant of the APOE-e4 gene, which puts them at a higher risk of developing dementia. Those in this group who had positive age beliefs had a 49.8 per cent lower risk of developing the disease than their high-risk peers who held negative age beliefs.
As impressive as the results sound, it’s important to remember that dementia is associated with a variety of factors. It would be incorrect to say that thinking positively about ageing was all you had to do to reduce your risk of dementia.
“That’s too simplistic a solution or explanation,” says Dr Kevin Tsang, a specialist in geriatric medicine at Matilda International Hospital. “Positive thinking is subjective and difficult to measure, so I can’t say that it helps prevent dementia.
“I think when it comes to protecting yourself from the condition, it’s more important to look at your physical health and lifestyle habits. If you want to minimise your risk, you should strive to live a healthy and active lifestyle.”
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Living a healthy and active lifestyle means, quitting smoking, limiting your intake of alcohol, losing weight if you’re overweight or obese, exercising regularly, and enjoying a nutritious and well-balanced diet. It’s also essential to have a social life and to be engaged with your community, since previous studies have found an association between a limited social network and cognitive decline.
With the number of dementia diagnoses in Hong Kong expected to hit 250,000 in the year 2036, up from 70,000 in 2014, it’s good to know that the power to protect yourself from dementia is in your hands.
While he doesn’t believe that we can deduce much from the Yale study, Tsang says that having a more positive attitude towards ageing can’t hurt. “Optimism is a good thing, especially if you’re elderly, because a positive mindset can improve your quality of life and reduce stress,” he explains. “In addition, it can guard against depression and anxiety, both of which are associated with dementia. But, you must remember that positive thinking is not a proven therapy for dementia.”
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Nathan attributes his excellent quality of life – and physical and mental health – to his positive outlook. “Getting older really is a state of mind,” he says. “I don’t think you’re doing yourself any favours by having a bleak outlook on ageing. I’m upbeat, and I surround myself with people who think the same way as I do.
“My wife, for instance, is a positive influence in my life, and I love being with friends who make me laugh and with whom I can share jokes and discuss various issues. I also believe in having things to look forward to and to be happy and excited about – that’s why I’m always looking for new challenges and ways to engage with the community. Having a positive attitude really helps. You know that Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World? That’s pretty much how I see life.”