Some years ago, when I worked in a dementia clinic, I used to see an elderly couple who had an interesting dynamic.
They’d been together for nearly 50 years and were devoted. The husband had been a university lecturer and, when diagnosed with dementia, was horrified that the thing he valued the most — his mind — was slipping away from him.
But what was striking about his wife was her relentlessly upbeat nature. This was despite a traumatic past — she had been in a Nazi death camp as a child and none of her close family had survived.
When the camp was liberated, she’d come to the UK to live with distant relatives.
‘You’re still the love of my life, even if you are a bit ga-ga at times,’ she said to him once in clinic, and they both laughed like drains
A witness to so much horror, she told me that it had prompted her to make a resolution simply to laugh at life from then on. That was how she’d lived her life.
Yes, she was understandably devastated by her husband’s diagnosis, but never wavered in her determination to look on the bright side.
‘What good will moping around do?’ she asked.
So every time her husband forgot something or became confused, she reassured him that it didn’t matter. They’d find some aspect to laugh about.
‘You’re still the love of my life, even if you are a bit ga-ga at times,’ she said to him once in clinic, and they both laughed like drains.
Being optimistic isn’t about being in denial, it’s about trying to find the positives in life, even in dire situations.
So this woman would celebrate when her husband came back safe from the shops and not worry that he’d forgotten the milk or some other item she needed.
Yes, she was understandably devastated by her husband’s diagnosis, but never wavered in her determination to look on the bright side. ‘What good will moping around do?’ she asked
It occurred to me that it was precisely this approach that was helping him cope so well.
Her relentlessly optimistic outlook rubbed off on him, so he didn’t worry or become distressed when he forgot something or became confused.
He was less anxious — anxiety can make memory worse — overall. In truth, his wife’s optimistic approach to life’s problems did him more good than anything medicine had to offer.
And so I was not too surprised this week to read the findings of a ground-breaking study by researchers at Michigan State University and Harvard.
In the process of monitoring the progress of more than 4,000 heterosexual couples for up to eight years, they discovered that dementia sufferers with optimistic spouses suffer less cognitive decline and memory loss.
They aren’t saying that having a cheery husband or wife will prevent dementia, but it is fascinating that the kind of people we surround ourselves with can have an effect not just on mental conditions but also on something with a clear biological basis such as dementia.
Our companions, depending on their own outlook, can benefit us in ways beyond the psychological and actually have an impact on fundamental disease processes. It got me thinking about the mechanism at play here. I wonder if having a positive partner means you tend to be more upbeat yourself, and therefore eat better or take more exercise?
We know that a wide variety of elements contribute to someone’s wellbeing. These vary from social factors, such as poverty, to conditions like schizophrenia and alcoholism that have, at least in part, a genetic component.
‘When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life,’ said William Chopik, co-author of the study. ‘You actually do experience a rosier future'
Someone’s upbringing plays an important role, as do factors such as disability, chronic pain, employment and education.
While we know that being single — and its link with social isolation — increases the risks of some mental health problems, the impact of the personality and temperament of someone’s partner is largely unknown territory.
And if it is ever considered, we tend to think about it in negative terms — how an abusive, critical or overbearing partner can have a negative effect and hamper a patient’s recovery.
What is new about this study is that it has uncovered evidence that the reverse applies.
‘When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life,’ said William Chopik, co-author of the study.