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Positive Beliefs About Aging May Help Fend Off Alzheimer’s

Having positive feelings about growing old may help to ward off Alzheimer’s disease, a new study reports. The study found that even those seniors who carried the APOE-E4 gene, one of the strongest known risk factors for Alzheimer’s, were less likely to develop the disease if they had positive beliefs about old age.

“We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia,” said lead author Becca Levy, professor of public health and of psychology at Yale. “This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism, which is a source of negative age beliefs.”

About a quarter of the population carries the APOE-E4 gene. But less than half of those who carry the gene actually end up coming down with Alzheimer’s disease. Several earlier studies had suggested that positive beliefs about aging may have cognitive benefits, and the researchers sought to learn more about whether your beliefs about aging might play a protective role against the onset of dementia.

For the study, the researchers looked at 4,765 older men and women, average age 72, who were part of a large and ongoing study called the Health and Retirement study. All were free from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia at the start of the study.

Participants were given a saliva test to see whether they carried the APOE-E4 gene. About 26 percent carried the gene, with 7 percent of those carrying two copies, which greatly increases Alzheimer’s risk.

They also answered a series of questions about how they regard old age and aging, ranking themselves, on a ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, about such statements as:

“Things keep getting worse as I get older”
“I have as much pep as I did last year”
“The older I get, the more useless I feel”
“I am as happy now as I was when I was younger”
“As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be.”

Study participants were followed for four years to determine whether they developed Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

The researchers found that carriers of the APOE-E4 with the most positive age beliefs were nearly 50 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with the most negative age beliefs. Over the four-year course of the study, carriers of the APOE-E4 gene who had positive beliefs about aging had a 2.7 percent risk of developing dementia. That compared to a 6.1 percent risk among those with negative beliefs about aging.

Positive beliefs about aging also seemed to protect those who did not carry the APOE-E4 gene. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers note that negative beliefs about aging can contribute to stress, and high levels of stress may contribute to the development of dementia. Positive beliefs about aging, on the other hand, may help buffer against the harmful effects of stress. Those with positive attitudes are also more likely to socialize and engage in physical activities, which are also linked to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers also note that while we internalize beliefs about aging at a young age and carry them throughout life, these beliefs can be modified with cognitive-behavioral therapy and other techniques. The study findings, they conclude, “could inform personalized-medicine strategies to improve cognitive health by identifying those who are at higher risk of developing dementia, as indicated by age beliefs, and then by bolstering positive age beliefs through an intervention.”

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Becca R. Levy, Marthin D. Slade, Robert H. Pietrzak, et al: “Positive Age Beliefs Protect Against Dementia among Elders with High-Risk Gene.” PLOS One, Feb. 8, 2017

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