Some people are simply more optimistic than others. They often are uplifting, fun and engaging to be around. They may also provide an even more important benefit both for themselves and their partners: their optimism proves a powerful tonic against cognitive decline.
Optimism can surface from time to time with everyone, but optimistic people are a breed apart. They believe the best possible outcome will happen in each situation, even if that outcome seems unlikely. They often look for the best in people, institutions, society as a whole or any given social situation. That includes finding reasons to be thankful for their age and not letting the challenges of aging get them down.
In short, they look on the bright side. But optimism may mean more than just the ability to feel happy and elevate the mood of the people around you. Optimism also has been associated with improved cognitive health.
And it doesn’t just help the optimist. A 2019 study by the University of Michigan found that optimistic people contributed to the health of their partners. Their optimism staved off “the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline as they grow old together.”
Research On Optimism and Cognitive Health
A study published in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal analyzed data from the national Health and Retirement Study involving 4,624 adults ages 65 and older during a four-year period. The study found that optimism among the older adults “reduced likelihood of becoming cognitively impaired” and that the data suggests “potentially modifiable aspects of positive psychological functioning such as optimism play an important role in maintaining cognitive functioning.”
Another study led by researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai examined “dispositional optimism” and its impact on 171 people with mild, moderate or severe traumatic brain injury. The study found that “dispositional optimism may promote higher levels of cognitive functioning in people who sustained a TBI.”
The Michigan State University study found this extends to the partner in a relationship with an optimist. The impact is strong because people spend so much time with their partners. An optimistic partner is more likely to push for the couple to engage in activities that result in positive outcomes, such as exercise and eating healthier foods. Those types of activities can have a strong impact on delaying age-related cognitive decline.
That’s important for people as they age. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 11.7% of adults over the age of 65 experience cognitive decline. Men are more likely to experience age-related cognitive issues, with about 11.3% self-reporting cognitive decline issues compared to 10.6% of women.
How Optimism Impacts Health
Writing in Psychology Today, Rice University professor Dr. Utmal Dholakia noted that optimists tend to make positive choices, leading to the types of behavior that improve mental health and cognitive ability.
For example, those with an optimistic nature often:
- Choose to track their health more closely and take appropriate action to deal with any issues
- Engage in healthy behaviors and do better at ridding themselves of bad habits
- Find effective ways to deal with setbacks rather than letting those setbacks get them down for long
- Have more friends, better relationships with those friends and few negative social interactions for the simple reason that people prefer to interact with optimists rather than pessimists
In the battle against cognitive decline, people look for whatever help they can find. While it’s not possible to wake up tomorrow as an optimist, it is possible to start trying to look on the bright side of things. It not only will make you a more attractive person to be around, but also improve your cognitive health – and the health of those you love.