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Study Finds Link Between Chronic Negative Thoughts & Dementia

Older Woman Sitting in Thought
Image by Irina Polonina / Stocksy
June 8, 2020

Mental health resources are vital at any stage of life, including late adulthood. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, "having persistent thoughts and memories you can't get out of your head," is one early warning sign of mental health problems. For adults older than 55, repetitive negative thoughts may also increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, a recent study finds. 

The study, published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia, was led by a team of researchers at University College London. After analyzing 360 participants over the age of 55, they found repetitive negative thinking (RNT) was linked to cognitive decline.

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What's the connection?

Previous studies have linked later-life depression1 and anxiety2 with a greater risk of dementia. "Here, 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, Ph.D., says in a news release. 

To analyze the role of those thinking patterns, researchers surveyed participants' cognitive functioning, memory, attention, and language through both questionnaires and brain scans. 

The surveys revealed that adults with higher RNT experienced greater cognitive decline and worse memory over the course of four years. Their brain scans also showed a higher presence of tau and amyloid—two proteins that cause Alzheimer's disease when they build up. 

Can you prevent it?

There is currently no treatment for Alzheimer's disease or dementia. However, researchers say mental health resources, like mindfulness, meditation, and therapy, should be studied to see if they might reduce the risks of cognitive decline. 

It's also important to note that this study had some limitations. Many participants were already at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's. To verify whether the link is consistent, researchers need to look at the general population. Further research needs to be done to identify effective interventions.

"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," co-author Gael Chetelat, Ph.D., says, "but it could also impact your eventual risk of dementia." 

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