It may not be surprising that optimistic people are generally healthier, happier, and likely to live longer than people who are not so cheerful. Now recent data suggests a converse development: people prone to psychological distress and negative emotions like worry and anxiety are significantly more prone to memory problems than the general population.

 Two studies involving more than 1,200 participants conducted by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that people who experienced negative emotions most often in their daily lives, i.e., “negative thinkers,” were 40 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, the stepping-stone to dementia. These same researchers previously demonstrated that easily distressed individuals are significantly more likely to develop full-blown Alzheimer‘s disease.

How we experience stress and negative emotions is an integral part of who we are. Without intervention, our response to psychological distress tends to stay the same throughout our adult lives. The Rush research suggests that, over a lifetime, chronic stress negatively affects the area of the brain that regulates memory.

The body’s physiologic stress response is well adapted for survival in times of immediate physical danger. This process evolved over millions of years, but our modern style of living has only come about over the past few hundred years. We’ve gone through the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age in rapid-fire succession – but our bodies are still programmed for primitive fight-or-flight responses. The constant stream of perceived psychological stressors associated with modern living –work deadlines, dealing with difficult people and financial obligations, to name a few – can create prolonged exposure to stress hormones like Cortisol, which accelerates the body’s aging process.

We need to take pro-active steps to “outrun the bear” that these modern-day stressors place on our bodies! Trying to worry less and keep your psychological distress to a minimum will go a long way toward improving the quality of your life, your longevity, and even your memory too. It may take some work, but changing the habit of thinking negatively is possible. Here are some simple first steps:

1. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself, and replace negative words and phrases with positive ones. For example, consider the impact that replacing “hard” words with softer alternatives can have on your psyche: “I should” becomes “I prefer,” always becomes often; never becomes seldom; and problems are challenges or situations.

2. Focus on the positive. Express gratitude for all the good around you, and cherish the small things in life. Some people benefit by keeping a gratitude journal or simply reciting three things they are grateful for before they turn off the light each night. By having good thoughts occupy your mind as you nod off, you are more apt to fall into a more restful sleep.

3. Practice some relaxation techniques. Mindfulness techniques such as breathing awareness, physical exercise, guided meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, yoga and biofeedback have proven benefits. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind. You may also find alternating or combining different techniques will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results. Try them out and discover the ones that work best for you.

4. Do your best to “live in the moment.” When we live in the present, feeling neither regret for past events nor fear or anxiety about the future, our stress hormone levels tend to be the lowest.

These above tips may sound simple and that’s because they are! The hardest part is taking that first step, but I know you can do it!

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Patrick Yassini, MD, is board certified in family medicine, integrative and holistic medicine and is fellowship trained in metabolic medicine, anti-aging and regenerative medicine. He has practiced in Coronado since 2000 and is the medical director at Peak Health Group, 131 Orange Avenue, Suite 100, Coronado; (619) 522-4005.