June 29, 2016
People who hold negative beliefs about growing old are more likely to have brain changes typical of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study found. And shifting ones beliefs about aging to be more positive could offer benefits in helping to mitigate the ravages of Alzheimer’s, the authors suggest.
“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Becca Levy, the study leader and an associate professor or public health and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated, and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”
Believing that the elderly are sickly and have little to contribute, for example, would be a negative belief. Believing that old people can lead a vibrant life and engage in society, on the other hand, could be good for the aging brain. The findings were published in Psychology and Aging, a journal from the American Psychological Association.
For the study, which was conducted in two parts, researchers got detailed medical information on healthy adults who were part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a large and decades-long study of people who had been living in the Baltimore area. All were physically healthy and free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
The study volunteers filled out detailed questionnaires that, among other topics, probed their beliefs about aging. Participants were asked to rank how strongly they believed statements like, “Old people are absent minded” and “Old people cannot concentrate well.”
During the study period, participants also underwent regular MRI brain scans to look for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
In the first part of the study, involving 52 men and women, they found that participants who held more negative beliefs about aging tended to show a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory. The hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain to shrink in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
In the second part of the study, which involved more elderly people, the researchers conducted brain autopsies on 74 study participants who had died. They looked for the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain: amyloid plaques and the buildup of tau, the protein that forms tangles. They found that participants who held more negative beliefs about aging tended to have, decades later, more plaques and tangles in their brains.
The researchers note that negative beliefs about aging are especially prevalent in the United States. In many traditional cultures such as in India, old age tends to be venerated. That could be one reason, the researchers speculate, that the rate of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States is five times that of India, though many factors go into determining who ultimately gets Alzheimer’s disease.
Thinking positively about growing old will by no means guarantee that you won’t get Alzheimer’s disease. But, as the current study results suggest, not stressing so much about old age may help to keep the brain young.
Source: Becca R. Levy, Martin D. Slade, Luigi Ferrucci, et al: “A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s-Disease Biomarkers.” Psychology and Aging, December 2015.