Positive Thinking Promotes Longevity, But New Research Suggests It Also Promotes Memory Recovery


Positive age beliefs contribute to mild cognitive impairment (MCI) recovery, according to a study from Yale. Photo: Flashpop/Getty Images

Longevity may be the most important trend we’ve ever experienced. It’s driven by — and in turn, it affects — everything from health to housing, money to technology, lifestyle to social policy. There’s so much to be aware of — and it’s just getting started! Now you can keep up with all the latest developments in this weekly column.


We know optimism promotes longevity: there’s a considerable body of research to show that people with positive attitudes as they age outlive people with negative attitudes. But a new study from the Yale School of Public Health supports another important benefit: people who think positively about aging are more likely to recover memory than people who think negatively.

The study is reported in an article here, and you can read the full study here.

The research was bade on data from the national Health and Retirement Study. Researchers wanted to know if positive aging beliefs could contribute to mild cognitive impairment (MCI) recovery. They looked at results from 1,716 participants aged 65 and older.

Positive and negative age beliefs were based on previous attitudinal studies. For example, agreement/disagreement with such statements as, “The older I get, the more useless I feel.” So, there was a solid research and statistical basis for the categorizations.

The first big thing, for me, was that there can be recovery from mild cognitive impairment in the first place. The article quotes Becca Levy, professor of public health at Yale and the study’s lead author: “Most people assume there is no recovery from MCI, but in fact half of those who do have it recover from it. Little is known about why some recover while others don’t. That’s why we looked at positive age beliefs, to see if they would help provide an answer.”

Previous research had already shown that positive beliefs about aging “reduced stress caused by cognitive challenges, increased self-confidence about cognition and improved cognitive performance.” People in the positive age-belief group who started with normal cognition “were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment over the next 12 years than those in the negative age-belief group, regardless of their baseline age and physical health.”

But if positive group did experience MCI, the research showed they were much more likely to recover. “Participants with MCI at baselines were significantly more likely to experience cognitive recovery if they had positive age beliefs at baseline.” In fact, they had 30.2 per cent greater likelihood of recovery than the negative group. They also had a faster transition from MCI back to normal cognition.

The money quote:

“The findings of this … study suggest the importance of considering the role of culture, expressed her through age beliefs, in MCI development and reversal … Considering that positive age beliefs can be strengthened, our findings suggest that age-belief interventions at individual and societal levels could increased the number of people who experience cognitive recovery.”

This is a very important study, because it shows that positive attitudes to aging are not just vague, “feel-good” things, but have direct and measurable results. Imagine building that positivity into more medical treatment!

David Cravit is a Vice-President at ZoomerMedia, and Chief Membership Officer of CARP. He is also the author of two books on the “reinvention” of aging. You can check out some of his other writing here.