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Cognitive Ageing and Dementia Prevention: The Time for Psychology?

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Maintaining an active lifestyle and refraining from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are widely recognised as important preventative measures against dementia and cognitive decline in older adults. Recent scientific inquiry has extended this understanding to include the role of psychological factors in shaping our susceptibility to developing this condition.

It has been suggested that repetitive negative thinking, characterised by persistent self-referential thoughts that focus on negative themes, may exacerbate the burden of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathological markers and accelerate cognitive decline over time.

Conversely, self-reflection and a sense of purpose in life have been found to promote cognitive resilience against neuropathological burdens. The implications of this emerging area of research are significant, as it highlights the potential benefits of interventions aimed at promoting positive psychological states in the prevention of dementia.

Although much remains to be elucidated in this field, further investigation may contribute greatly to public health initiatives geared towards preventing dementia and cognitive decline in older adults. In line with this, a team of researchers published a new editorial article in the journal Aging

Modifiable risk and protective factors (such as engaging in active lifestyles and avoiding alcohol or smoking amongst others) are seen as key agents for dementia prevention, and they also exert an important effect on the cognitive trajectories of non-demented older adults. In this new editorial, researchers David Bartrés-Faz, Cristina Solé-Padullés and Natalie L. Marchant from the University of Barcelona discuss recent research that has begun to identify psychological processes that confer relative risk and protection. 

“For example, repetitive negative thinking (RNT), a cognitive process defined by self-relevant, persistent thoughts that elaborate on negative themes, has been associated with a greater burden of typical Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathological brain markers and accelerated cognitive decline over time,” according to the researchers.

In contrast, self-reflection, as well as purpose in life and other components of psychological well-being, may help to maintain cognition and boost cognitive resilience against neuropathological burden. The possibility of incorporating psychological elements as key players in affecting one of the most important public health issues of the century opens a window of great therapeutic opportunity, particularly because fundamental psychological processes are at the core of cognitive-behavioural interventions that may help reduce dementia risk. However, for this emergent area to develop and wield maximum benefit, major unanswered questions need to be addressed. In their editorial, the researchers highlight three main areas for future research. 

“In summary, we propose that with momentum gathering, now is the time for psychology to make important contributions to cognitive ageing and dementia prevention research,” the researchers concluded.

It is suggested that psychology has the potential to make significant contributions to research on cognitive ageing and dementia prevention. To achieve this, there is a need to refine the characterization of psychological processes that may affect the risk or protection against dementia, and to gain a better understanding of how these processes interact with other modifiable factors and their biological foundations.

It is also important to consider and integrate these factors into future clinical trials. Creating a psychological framework with operational definitions would allow researchers and clinicians to work together towards promoting healthy cognitive ageing and dementia prevention. Making progress in this area could have significant implications for public health.

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