This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
It turns out that a negative attitude about aging can produce dementia-like changes in the brain, while a positive attitude is protective.
Striking Differences Found in Brain of People with Negative Aging Outlook
A study at the Yale School of Public Health followed 74 adults, starting at middle age and continuing to their death. At the onset, the attitudes of the participants toward aging and the elderly were assessed through surveys. After 20 years, they had a yearly brain scan to determine the size of their hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.
Shrinkage of the hippocampus normally occurs with age, but the size diminished three times faster in the people who had a negative view of aging. The loss of volume of this structure is a key indication of Alzheimer’s and dementia. In addition, an examination of their brain at the time of death, approximately 28 years from the study’s onset, showed those with a negative aging attitude had higher amounts of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, which are both hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. The scans as well as the postmortem exam showed striking differences between the brains of people who viewed aging positively and those who viewed it negatively.
“We believe it is the stress generated by negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” researcher Becca Levy said in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Negative Cultural Stereotyping of Elderly Contributes to Alzheimer’s
The study is the first to indicate a culture-based risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. According to Levy, the rate of the illness in the U.S. is five times that of India; and diet has been postulated as the reason. However, the study suggests that the cultural factor of revering the elderly in India rather than diet could account for the lower incidence, she speculates. In comparison to India, western societies have negative age stereotypes and show far less respect for this segment of the population.
If Levy’s conclusion is correct, people who live in countries where society associates mental decline with old age will probably experience this. Conversely, people who maintain an optimistic outlook toward aging are likely to stay mentally alert longer.
“Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable,” Levy adds. “I think treating older individuals with respect could have a noticeable beneficial impact for society and for its older members.”
It should be noted that the study assessed negative attitudes toward aging specifically rather than negative attitudes in general. If people dread and fear growing older, this mindset will literally eat away at their brain over time. Our takeaway is to develop a positive outlook toward aging regardless of society’s attitudes and beliefs. The impact of such optimism could be far greater than what has heretofore been assumed. Moreover, as dementia and Alzheimer’s drugs have little benefit, efforts to prevent the conditions are the best approach to fighting them.