Good Brain Health is a Matter of Attitude

According to a new study, people who believe that older people are slower, less ‘with-it’, and/or less happy, had a higher chance several decades later of developing changes in their brain which are connected to Alzheimer’s disease. The study, which was a first-of-its-kind, linked illness to a psycho-social risk factor which is culturally based.

“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,” commented the lead author Becca Levy. “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 is an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. The research was published in the scientific journal “Psychology and Aging.”

The scientists looked at data from 158 healthy people who did not have dementia and were enrolled in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The Study is the country’s longest-running research into the science of aging. While they were still in their 40s the participants were asked how they felt about aging. About 25 years later the participants began taking annual MRI brain scans. The people with the negative attitudes towards aging showed the same amount of brain decline in three years as those who held more positive attitudes showed in nine years.

In the cases where participants died, brain autopsies were conducted to see physical signs of Alzheimer’s. Those that expressed negative stereotypes about aging over 25 years before they died had a larger number of plaques and tangles in their brains, which are signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s.