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Negative thoughts about aging may contribute to Alzheimer's, study says
Folks who dread aging and view the process in a negative light appear to be more likely to age badly, according to research that shows a link between how one thinks about growing old and Alzheimer's disease. - photo by Lois M Collins
Folks who dread aging and view the process in a negative light appear to be more likely to age badly themselves, according to research that finds a link between how one thinks about growing old and the development of Alzheimer's disease.

A pair of studies led by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found those who saw the elderly as "decrepit" were more likely themselves to experience brain changes associated with the dementing disease.

According to a Yale news release, the research "is the first to link the brain changes related to Alzheimer's disease to a cultural-based psychosocial risk factor."

Findings were published online Dec. 7 in Psychology and Aging.

"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 Yale's Becca Levy, associate professor of public health and of psychology, in a written statement. "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."

The findings are based on following participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. They were healthy and dementia free when the study began. They not only answered questions, but 52 of them also underwent annual MRIs after about age 69. Researchers discovered that those with more negative beliefs about aging experienced more shrinkage of their hippocampus, which is an important part of the brain for memory. A shrunken hippocampus is an indicator of Alzheimer's.

Besides Yale, the study included researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging, which provided grants for the study.

Time magazine's Mandy Oaklander wrote that "in order to find out how people in the study felt about age stereotypes, researchers used a scale with statements like 'older people are absent-minded' or 'older people have trouble learning new things.' People in the study gave these answers when they were in their 40s."

Other indicators include amlyoid plaque buildup between brain cells and brain protein tangles, which were also examined in the study. The researchers performed autopsies on the brains of 74 study subjects and found both tangles and plaques in "significantly greater number" in the brains of those who had held negative beliefs about aging. They made a point that the age stereotypes were measured on average about 28 years before they died and their brains were autopsied.

"Past laboratory research on humans shows that when people are primed with negative age stereotypes and exposed to stressors, they have a greater cardiovascular response, which is linked to heart events. And research from 2012 conducted by Levy and others found that people who had more negative age stereotypes before they had reached old age had significantly worse memory performance later in life," wrote Oaklander.

Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times noted that "both observations held even after researchers took account of age, sex and a range of factors that can affect brain health. And the fact that the observations held for two different means of measuring brain structure over time and after death clearly suggests that attitudes about aging influence brain structure, and not that people with as-yet-undiagnosed Alzheimer's are simply more negative about aging."

Dr. Laura Phipps of Alzheimers Research UK told The Telegraph that previous research has suggested a link between psychological factors and brain health and "the complex factors influencing these relationships can be very hard to untangle."

"We know that some of the early changes associated with Alzheimers can happen 10-15 years before symptoms show and while the researchers tried to account for this, its hard to know whether these early changes had a knock-on effect on peoples social behaviours and attitudes or vice versa," she said.
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