Hippocrates, hippodrome and our hippocampus have more in common with each other than the first five letters of each word. These three are connected to the exploration of the impact of negative thinking on our brains as we age.
Hippocrates purported ideas of aging that centered around our relationship with nature, suggesting that we should complement nature rather than work against it. During the Regal Period, 753-509 BC, in Greece and Rome, hippodromes were stretched oval stadiums for horse racing. Historically, deterioration and atrophy of one region of our brain, the hippocampus, has been suggested to be a natural byproduct of aging.
Over the previous two decades, the first of these two areas have remained consistent: Hippocrates’ ideas are unwavering, and horses race around oblong tracks. The third of these areas however, our hippocampus, has undergone much speculation and even greater discovery.
Let’s explore the significance of the hippocampal region to our overall health, how the hippocampus and other integral parts can change when exposed to positive and negative thinking and how our thoughts about aging impact our aging process and experiences.
According to recent research findings compiled from negative thought patterns of 7,000 subjects, researchers suggest a direct and significant impact of thoughts on telomere length. Precisely, negative and hostile thoughts shorten telomeres, thereby leading to cellular death and then eventually overall death.
Think negatively. Die early.
Now, evolutionarily, we greatly valued “negativity bias.” It makes sense to place more value on negative stimuli. Previously, we were served to avoid threats rather than collect rewards. Outsmart a leopard and not be his dinner one night, means you get to enjoy the possible rewards of the following day. Despite present-day statistics where the highest possibility of an American being killed by an animal is reported to be 1 in 674,60; our brains are wired to collect negative stimuli.
Housed within the hippocampus is the amygdala, which regulates emotions, feelings and memories. We have two of these almond shaped areas, one in each hemisphere, and we can think of them as two horses running a race, named Positive and Negative. Two-thirds of its neurons are used to look for bad news, which translates to negative events, which in turn get stored as memories.
When activity of our amygdala is heightened, this stimulates the adrenal gland and releases hormones. In stressful or negative events, namely cortisol floods in. Cortisol is like acid rain to the hippocampus, washing away the ability to form new memories.
The effects of negative thinking extend beyond any possible detrimental impacts on our brain structure and responses. Our entire body, mind and brain included, is a system. Any change in one area leads to changes in other areas. According to a recent study’s findings published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, heart attack and stroke are much higher among men who report being cynical. Other studies purport higher blood pressure and blood glucose levels among people who favor negative thought patterns.
Similarly, our perspectives of aging inform our neural pathways and determine which horse is fed. Research suggests that when we hold negative views of aging, as measured by subjects’ scaled responses to statements such as: “older people are absent-minded” or “older people have trouble learning new things,” our hippocampus deteriorates, amyloid plaque builds up (or more specifically, protein between cells increases) and inter-cellular protein develops. These markers have strong links to the presence of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Although we were once best served to store negative experience for pure survival, we are no longer being chased by cheetahs. We now have many more options available to us for which memories we store. We can make efforts today to preference positive experiences, thereby influencing our positive aging experiences.
For positive experiences to take hold, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson suggests that these events “need to be held in our awareness for 12 or more seconds to transfer from short-term to long-term storage.”
If Hippocrates were having this conversation today, about aging and our thoughts, he might say, “The horse you feed is the one that will age and win the race.”
Which horse will you feed?