People who stress out about getting old are more likely to be diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, scientists are warning. Researchers have found middle-aged people who dread their senior years are more likely to have dementia-like changes to their brain years later. On the other hand, those who think positively about their inevitable aging are less likely to be diagnosed.
The study, conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, most certainly does not mean that thinking positively will stop you from developing Alzheimer’s, but it does present some interesting findings.
Researchers recruited 74 healthy dementia-free study participants and followed them from middle-age to death. Subjects filled out a survey about their beliefs on aging. Twenty years into the study, participants began having annual brain scans to measure the size of the hippocampus, where memories are stored.
Ultimately the scientists found those who thought more negatively about getting old showed a greater decline in the part of the brain crucial to memory, where degenerative brain disease first strikes.
Using brain autopsies of the patients post-death, the team looked for 2 other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, and found significantly more signs of the disease in those who negatively anticipated growing older. They focused on amyloid plaque, the sticky protein clusters that build up between brain cells, as well as neurofibrillary tangles, which are twisted protein strands that build up within brain cells.
All brains shrink as they age, but the hippocampus shriveled 3 times as quickly in participants who admitted to fretting about aging. More plaque and tangles were found in the brains of these individuals.
The findings held even when factors like age, education and overall health were factored in.
Researcher Rebecca Levy said:
“Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about ageing can be mitigated and positive beliefs can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”
Levy wrote in the journal Psychology and Aging:
“We believe it is the stress generated by negative beliefs about ageing that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes.
This finding provides a basis for reinterpreting Alzheimer’s disease data. Levy continued:
“To illustrate, diet has been posited as an explanation for why the rate of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States is five times that of India.
Alternatively, this discrepancy might be explained by the comparison of those two cultures from which age stereotypes are derived: India has a tradition of venerating elders, whereas the United States has a prevalence of negative age stereotypes.”
Manchester University health psychologist Dr. Cary Cooper pointed out that people who think optimistically tend to socialize and exercise more, and do things that keep their minds young.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.