An optimistic partner can stave off cognitive decline

Indeed a happy partner may mean a happy life, but what if it also helps with old age physical and mental health? A new study suggests it could do just that.

Having a long-term positive partner can help to keep our cognitive abilities intact as we get older.
Having a long-term positive partner can help to keep our cognitive abilities intact as we get older.

Does your partner see this glass as half empty or half full? Do they have a tendency to expect things to turn out for better or worse?

Researchers at East Lansing Michigan State University have found that a person can improve their partner’s long-term physical and mental health by keeping an optimistic outlook.

Such is the power of hope that can help stave off the possibility of various health problems, such as cognitive decline, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease, as a couple grow older together.

This is a boon given the ageing of most industrialized societies. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the number of people aged 65 years and older in the United States alone hit a new high of 52 million in 2018. The PRB predicts that by 2060, that number will almost double.

Not only that, but there are 5.8 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S.— the most common form of dementia— and every 65 seconds, somebody develops the disease.

“[ M]any industrialized societies are ageing very quickly. This presents a lot of unique challenges that we may not be prepared for,” Dr. William Chopik told Nccmeed

Dr. Chopik is a co-author of the new study which is published in the Personality Journal.

Moreover, he noted that people are living longer than ever, “which translates into a large number of people living with cognitive impairment and dementia.”

“As a result,” he said, “we were motivated to find out what causes cognitive decline, and we found that a lot of it has to do with you, but some of it has to do with your romantic partner as well.”

Identifying the link

For up to 8 years, the study followed 4,457 heterosexual couples from the Study of Health and Retirement.

This revealed a potential connection between marriage to an optimist and the prevention of cognitive decline.

But how does hope— the general expectation of good things going to happen in the future — impact long-term mental health in a partner?

“Optimists do all sorts of wholesome things,” Chopik said. “They are more physically active, they maintain healthy lifestyles and they avoid harmful things like drugs and alcohol.”

“A lot of it has to do not only with optimists thinking that these efforts will translate to good outcomes but also that they have control over these things, too. Optimists are the kind of people who think that going to the gym is worth it, so they’ll often keep doing it!”

– Dr. William Chopik

Events lead optimists, and partners frequently follow their lead, Chopik says, adding people typically spend a lot of time with their partner.

In looking at predictors for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, researchers found that a lot revolves around lifestyle choices.

“Compromised health earlier in life, together with some genetic factors, is one of the greatest risk factors preventable for cognitive decline,” Chopik said.

“So, essentially, we know that being physically safe — for example, being more physically active, eating a healthy diet, being more mobile, preventing major diseases — is correlated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline.”

“But we were more interested in what healthy living expected. It turns out it helps a lot to be optimistic about the future.’

Can people become more optimistic?

While optimism seems heritable, Dr. Chopik points out that some studies have shown that people have the power to change their attitude by engaging in things that change them, if we have the will to do so.

“People can change somewhat in hope,” Dr Chopik said.

“We may undergo significant psychological changes, especially after important events in life. Some preliminary research suggests resilience can be enhanced by interventions. That study is yet in its infancy, however.”

What the researchers are working on next is finding the best way to develop treatments for people.

The issue that they are answering is: What makes optimism special?

“We think it’s about feeling like you’re having control over your life (and that it’s going to bring good results). But maybe we can try to increase people’s perceptions of control rather than increasing optimism,” Chopik said.

“How do you likewise encourage your partner to live a healthier lifestyle? There are certainly ways to turn into success, and there are other ways a relationship would be drastically backfired and harmed! The key is to find out exactly how couples can nudge each other to live healthier lives.”

In their paper the scientists conclude that further research will help convert motivation into a beneficial strategy for adults who want to maintain good cognitive health as they mature.

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