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Having an optimistic partner may stave off cognitive decline


Feb. 22, 2020 Medical News Today

Does your partner see the glass as half full or half empty? Do they tend to expect things to turn out for the best or the worst?

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have found that by having an optimistic outlook, a person can help the long-term physical and mental health of their partner.

Such is the power of optimism that it can help stave off the risk of various health issues, such as cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, as a couple grows old together. 

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

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

“[M]any industrialized societies are aging at a very fast rate. This presents a lot of unique challenges that we might not be ready for,” said Dr. William Chopik, speaking to Medical News Today

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

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

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

Identifying the link

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

It showed that there was a potential link between marriage to an optimist and the prevention of cognitive decline.

But how does optimism — the general expectation that good things will happen in the future — in a partner affect long-term mental health?

“Optimists do all sorts of healthy things,” said Chopik. “They are more physically active, maintain healthy diets, and avoid harmful things [such as drugs and alcohol].”

Optimists lead by example, and partners often follow their lead, says Chopik, noting that people typically spend a lot of time with their partner.

Researchers found that in looking at predictors for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, a lot revolve around lifestyle choices.

“Compromised health earlier in life, in combination with some genetic factors, is among the largest preventable risk factors for cognitive decline,” said Chopik.

“So, basically, we know that being physically healthier — for example, being more physically active, eating a healthy diet, being more mobile, avoiding major illnesses — is associated with reduced risk for cognitive decline.” 

“But we were most interested in what predicted the healthy living. It turns out being optimistic about the future helps a lot.”

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