Negative thinking has a bigger impact on more than just your mood and outlook. According to a new study, repeatedly thinking negative thoughts – called Repetitive Negative Thinking (RNT) – can lead to loss of memory, cognitive function decline and increased production of toxic brain proteins.
The study’s findings seem to indicate you really are what you focus on. And if you focus on always having a “glass half empty” mentality, it could prove dangerous to your brain function as you age.
The findings seem to validate other research that has shown optimism helps slow cognitive decline. But this study from University College London differed in that it focused on the potential damage of negative thinking, not just the absence of optimism.
It Takes More Than A Bad Day
Researchers pointed out that the study looked at long-term negative thinking, not just a bad day or week. There is no evidence that a “short term setback” would increase a person’s risk for developing dementia.
But the study, published in The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, proposes that long-term, repetitive negative thinking could emerge as a new risk factor for dementia.
The study involved research with 360 people, all over the age of 55, for four years. Study participants answered questions about how often they engage in RNT such as rumination about the past or worry about the future. They also completed questionnaires on anxiety and depression.
Researchers then assessed study participants’ cognitive skills, including measurements of memory, attention, language and spatial cognition. Some patients also underwent PET brain scans. Researchers found that those with increased repetitive negative thoughts experienced a steeper cognitive decline over four years. Also, they had increased deposits of tau and amyloid, two proteins in the brain that are associated with dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s Disease.
The researchers suggested that RNT might contribute to the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease by increasing stress and causing high blood pressure, which may contribute to an increase in amyloid and tau proteins in the brain.
Addressing Repetitive Negative Thinking
Dr. Natalie Merchant, the study’s lead author and a Senior Research Fellow at University College London’s Division of Psychiatry, said in a press release that past research has established depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age as risk factors for dementia.
“Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia,” Merchant said. “We hope that our findings could be used to develop strategies to lower people’s risk of dementia by helping them to reduce their negative thinking patterns.”
Doing so requires finding a new way to frame negative experiences and thoughts, according to Psychology Today. Or, in some cases, people have success not trying to change their thoughts, but rather change how they relate and react to repeated negative thoughts. In some cases, the less people worry about RNT the less frequently they appear.
Other practical solutions include finding ways to distract yourself when RNT starts to arise, socializing with upbeat friends and family, and directly addressing the negative thought rather than avoid or ignore it.