Negative Thoughts About 'Old People' Linked To Alzheimer's Risk


A word of caution for anyone who thinks "old people" are just feeble and decrepit -- you might not fare so well yourself when you get to that age. Two new studies led by Yale University say there appears to be a strong link between negative feelings about aging and the elderly and the risk of developing Alzheimer's down the road.

The findings, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, looked at data from the long-running Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, determining the 158 subjects' views on aging. The subjects, all free of major disease and dementia, were asked to rate their agreement with statements like "Old people are absent-minded." They answered the surveys in their 40s and approximately 25 years later, they started undergoing annual MRIs for up to 10 years. 

Researchers found that those who believed in negative age stereotypes had a "significantly steeper decline" in their hippocampal volume -- around three times as fast -- compared with their age-positive peers. The shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain's memory center, is a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. 

The second study looked at another link between the memory-robbing disease and stereotypes about aging. Researchers studied brain autopsies of the cohort, and those with negative feelings about old age had significantly more plaques and tangles -- another major hallmark of Alzheimer's disease.

To put it simply, people who had less-than-flattering opinions of aging and old people had a greater risk of developing the brain changes commonly seen with Alzheimer's disease. Researchers say this is one of the first studies to look at a link between social stereotypes and age-related diseases.

“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,” Becca Levy, a lead researcher from the Yale School of Public Health, said in a statement. 

The findings are particularly important as an estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease and it's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer's Association. 

“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," Levy said.

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