A recent study from the Yale School of Public Health suggests you may be more likely to develop brain changes typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease if you believe growing older is a negative thing. Published in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology and Aging, the report also found if a person shifts to more positive feelings about aging, it may help to mitigate the damages of Alzheimer’s.
“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,” explains the study’s leader, Becca Levy, an associate professor of public health and psychology at Yale. She adds that “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.”
The first part of the study was conducted with 52 men and women who were a part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-term study out of Baltimore. The group answered surveys that examined their opinions on aging. Negative views included the belief elderly people are sickly and have little to contribute, or that they cannot concentrate well and are absent-minded. Positive beliefs included the notion that older people can lead vibrant lives and be engaged in society.
Each participant had regular MRI brain scans to check for signs of Alzheimer’s. Those who answered questions more negatively had a “greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory.” This is significant as “the hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain to shrink in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
The second part of the study included a much larger group of elderly people. At the time of the report, 74 have died and researchers have conducted autopsies on their brain. Those who held more negative beliefs on aging tended to have an increase in the amount of amyloid plaques and the buildup of tau, the “telltale signs of Alzheimer’s.”
Researchers note that people in America typically hold more negative views on aging as compared to countries such as India, which venerates the elderly, and could be one reason Alzheimer’s is five time more prevalent in the U.S. While positive thinking is no guarantee, the study suggests that “not stressing so much about old age may help to keep the brain young.”
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