How getting old could really be all in your head


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Not many people actually enjoy the aging process but how old age is perceived can make all the difference to its impact. In fact, a pessimistic view of later life can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. New research in the U.S. shows that individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease.


A cultural bias

The Yale School of Public Health have published a study suggesting that combating negative beliefs about aging — such as the idea that elderly people are decrepit — could have profound social effects by potentially offering a way to reduce the rapidly expanding rate of Alzheimer's disease, a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that causes dementia in more than 5 million Americans.

The study led by Dr. Becca Levy, associate professor of public health and psychology, is the first to show a link between the neurological changes that come with Alzheimer's disease and a cultural-based psychosocial risk factor. "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," says Levy. Her findings have been published in the online journal Psychology and Aging.


A change of mind

Levy and her colleagues examined healthy, dementia-free subjects from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the nation's longest-running scientific study of aging. Using MRI scans, the researchers found that individuals who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus — a part of the brain that is crucial to memory and the size of which is an indicator of Alzheimer's disease.

The team then used brain autopsies to examine two other indicators of Alzheimer's disease. Firstly, amyloid plaques — "sticky"clusters of protein that build up between brain cells and block the signaling performed by the brain's synapses. Secondly, they looked at neurofibrillary tangles, the twisted strands of protein that build up within brain cells, destroy connections and so prevent essential nutrients from being transported.

It was found that, even when the figures were adjusted for other known risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, such as age and health, those participants who held more negative beliefs about aging had a significantly greater number of these plaques and tangles. "Although the findings are concerning," says Levy, "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."