A new study has shown that people who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The study from the Yale School of Public Health suggests that combatting negative beliefs about aging, such as elderly people are decrepit, could offer a way to reduce the rising rate of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes dementia in more than five million Americans.
“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 Dr. Becca Levy, an associate professor of public health and of psychology.
“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.”
For the study, researchers examined healthy, dementia-free subjects from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the nation’s longest-running scientific study of aging.
Based on magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found that participants who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain crucial to memory. Reduced hippocampus volume is an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists explain.
Researchers then used brain autopsies to examine two other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease: amyloid plaques, protein clusters that build up between brain cells; and neurofibrillary tangles, which are twisted strands of protein that build up within brain cells.
They found that people who held more negative beliefs about aging had a significantly greater number of plaques and tangles. The age stereotypes were measured an average of 28 years before the plaques and tangles, the researchers noted.
In both stages of the study, Levy and her colleagues adjusted for other known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including health and age.
The study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.