This One Thing Everyone Does Could Lead to Dementia As You Age

Repetitive negative thinking has been linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer's in a new study.

There's a lot to worry about these days—if you're feeling more pessimistic than usual, you're not alone. But if you're consumed by negativity more often than not, there may be cause for concern. There has been plenty of research on the short-term effects of stress and worry, which can wreak havoc on your body, but there are also potential long-term effects to be aware of, particularly if your negative thoughts never seem to go away. According to new research out of UCL, repetitive negative thinking could lead to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The study, published on Jun. 7 in the Alzheimer's Association journal Alzheimer's & Dementia, found a link between negative thinking and cognitive decline. It's not just having the occasional bad thought, but rather repetitive negative thinking, or RNT. Anxiety disorders have previously been identified as risk factors for dementia, but the UCL study focused specifically on patterns of thinking: those recurring bad thoughts you just can't shake.

"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," lead author Natalie Marchant, PhD, said in a statement. "Taken alongside other studies, which link depression and anxiety with dementia risk, we expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk of dementia."

Does this mean that if you've been feeling especially cynical or self-critical lately that you're setting yourself up for cognitive decline? Not so fast. As Marchant clarified, "We do not think the evidence suggests that short-term setbacks would increase one's risk of dementia."

older asian woman comforting older asian man on couch

Nevertheless, it's important to identify negative thinking and work to overcome it. UCL researchers found that people with higher RNT patterns experienced higher levels of cognitive decline over a four-year period, including memory loss, an early symptom of Alzheimer's.

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The study also determined that subjects who engaged in RNT were more likely to have deposits of tau and amyloid—two proteins that cause Alzheimer's—in their brains. And that's significant, because while previous studies have shown that depression and anxiety can be linked to dementia, this is the first to show a specific increase in those proteins, which is why researchers now believe that RNT is a notable risk factor on its own.

"Our thoughts can have a biological impact on our physical health, which might be positive or negative," study co-author Gael Chételat, PhD, said. Given this new research, he recommends mental training practices like meditation to decrease RNT and increase positive thinking. "Looking after your mental health is important, and it should be a major public health priority, as it's not only important for people's health and well-being in the short term, but it could also impact your eventual risk of dementia."

And for more ways to stave off cognitive decline, check out these 40 Habits to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia After 40.

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