Thankfulness isn't just for the I Thanksgiving holidays. Positive thoughts such as gratitude are an essential aspect of happiness and health all year long, especially in older age.
Research published in the April 19, 2012 issue of the journal Science suggests that older adults who avoid obsessing over their disappointments and failures and adopt attitudes such as gratitude, letting go, and self-forgiveness have greater emotional resilience, life satisfaction and resistance to depression in later life than older adults who dwell on past mistakes and feelings of regret.
"People who are well-adjusted in older age often have learned mental strategies that help them deal with life's disappointments and losses in a healthy way: says Maurizio Fava, MD, Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at MGH. "By accentuating the positive over the negative, these strategies help people pay attention to the good things in their lives rather than taking them for granted, or constantly focusing on the things that go wrong. Cultivating feelings of gratitude and avoiding ruminating over past mistakes are examples of healthy approaches to life's setbacks."
For the Science study, the researchers devised a computer gambling game in which players' decisions led them to win--or lose--symbolic "gold." After playing a round, participants were told how large a fortune they might have won if they had made different decisions--feedback that can elicit feelings of regret in some people. The scientists compared a group of healthy, nondepressed adults in their 60s with a group of depressed adults in their 60s and a group of healthy adults in their 20s, assessing the participants' physical and emotional reactions and using brain scans to measure brain activity as they played 80 rounds of the game.
The researchers found that when healthy older adults made mistakes in the game, they were more able to disengage from feelings of regret and showed fewer signs of stress than depressed older adults. The healthy adults had learned to use adaptive attitudes such as being thankful, letting go, or practicing forgiveness to control their feelings of regret. Depressed older adults, like younger adults, tended to respond to their mistakes by taking bigger risks, and they had greater difficulty regulating their emotions. The results suggest that disengagement from regret reflects a critical resilience factor for emotional health in older age.
CHANGE THOUGHT PATTERNS
Sometimes unremitting pessimism is a sign of a mood disorder that requires professional assessment and treatment. However, if your negativity is simply a habit of thought, these suggestions may help you gradually adopt more positive views.
* Keep a gratitude journal: Each day, jot down three things for which you are grateful, such as a friend's act of generosity, or a beautiful flower you saw. Writing about the things you are grateful for has a stronger effect than just thinking about a subject, and can help you develop a more positive habit of mind.
* Imagine losing something you take for granted, such as your vision, to spur your sense of appreciation.
* Share positive feelings with others. Be generous with praise and expressions of gratitude and affection.
* Give yourself credit. Spend a moment thinking about the actions and good qualities that have led to your successes. Banish thoughts such as, "Anyone could have done that.
* Go easy on yourself if you make a mistake. Instead of brooding about your losses, try to accept adversity and move on. Vow to do better in the future, and give yourself time to recover by distracting yourself with a pleasurable activity.
* Look for the silver lining. For example, an unwelcome event can be viewed as a learning opportunity.
* Develop a positive internal dialogue. Replace a critical, reproachful inner voice with one that is encouraging and upbeat. Dispute negative thoughts. Are you being realistic? Is there another, more positive way to look at your situation? Phrase things positively: for example, "My health is great," rather than "At least I feel okay most of the time."
* Associate with positive people as much as possible. Optimism is contagious.
* Seek help from a mental health professional if your negative attitudes are causing problems in your life or affecting others.
"It's not possible to control external events that can cause distress," Dr. Fava says. "And you shouldn't deny the problems in your life. But try to counterbalance your negative feelings with an increase in attention to things that make you feel positive."
A large body of research attests to the many benefits of adopting a positive attitude toward life. Studies have shown that emotions such as optimism and appreciation can help counteract the harmful consequences of depression and anxiety by boosting levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. Staying upbeat helps lower stress hormones that can interfere with thinking and remembering, and appears to reduce a person's overall likelihood of developing dementia. Positive feelings are also associated with a lower risk for physical conditions that can affect the brain, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.
Among the many other benefits of positive attitudes identified by researchers are: better sleep; lower levels of inflammation; better immune function; healthier behavior, such as exercising regularly, controlling weight, and quitting smoking; stronger bonds with others; and greater life satisfaction.
"Enjoying the positive aspects of life also can help bolster your ability to cope with stressful experiences when they do occur," adds Dr. Fava.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Athoughtful daily or weekly gratitude journal can help switch a negative focus to a contemplation of the good things in life. Some possible entries:
* People whose actions have made you feel grateful
* Events that brought you pleasure, helped you grow, or broadened your knowledge
* Objects that you appreciate, such as a dependable car, fashionable new shoes, or a bouquet of fresh flowers
* An unexpected stroke of good fortune
* Personal recognition from others
* A positive emotional experience
* A delicious meal
* A granddaughter's good grades
RELATED ARTICLE: MEMORY MAXIMIZERS
HERE'S THE LATEST RESEARCH TO HELP YOU KEEP YOUR BRAIN SHARP.
SUBTRACT FROM YOUR WAISTLINE, ADD TO YOUR MEMORY
A new study suggests that there's no such thing as "fat and fit" when it comes to the brain. People who are obese (i.e., have a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher) experience faster-than-normal memory decline even when they are otherwise healthy. To make matters worse, being too heavy is often associated with metabolic syndrome, a constellation of risk factors linked to accelerated cognitive decline that includes excess fat at the waist and abdomen, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides (a blood fat), low levels of HDL, or "good" cholesterol, and high fasting blood sugar.
Researchers looked at 10 years' worth of data from more than 6,400 adult participants in a long-term health study, according to a paper published Aug. 21, 2012 in Neurology. Study subjects who had at least two risk factors for metabolic syndrome performed worse on tests of mental functioning than those with fewer than two risk factors, and those who had at least two risk factors and were also obese declined 22.5 percent more rapidly than the subjects who were of normal weight and had fewer than two risk factors. Obese subjects who were metabolically normal also experienced more rapid decline, suggesting that obesity, in and of itself, can harm the brain.
To pare off pounds that can weigh on your memory, these tips may help:
* Calculate your BMI, a measure of your weight in relation to your height. A calculator can be found on www.nhlblsupport.com/bmi/
* Seek a doctor's advice to diet safely and manage metabolic syndrome.
* Commit to a regular exercise regimen if your doctor approves.
* Change your cooking style. Invest in cookbooks that stress healthy, low-fat, low-calorie meals and learn some delicious new recipes.
* Diet with a friend, or join a commercial weight loss plan that provides support and encouragement, such as Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.
GET SEVEN HOURS OF SLEEP TO KEEP YOUR MEMORY SHARP
A good night's sleep may be essential for protecting your memory over time, according to research presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in July 2012. Researchers linked reported sleep duration in mid-life and older age along with memory test scores among 15,263 participants in a long-term study. They found that subjects who regularly slept seven hours per night had higher average cognition than those who reported sleeping five or fewer hours or nine or more hours per night. In a subgroup of study subjects who underwent analysis of blood levels of beta-amyloid (a toxic protein that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease), an analysis linked sleeping more or less than seven hours per night with indications of possible beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain.
To improve sleep quality and memory function, experts suggest that you:
* See your doctor if you regularly sleep too little or too much at night.
* Get treatment for sleep disorders such as chronic insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness).
* Manage health conditions that can interfere with your sleep, such as back pain, arthritis, frequent urination, or respiratory problems.
* Practice good sleep hygiene with measures such as: maintaining a regular sleep schedule; making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet and your bed is comfortable; and establishing relaxing sleep-associated rituals before bed, such as reading or listening to music.