Can optimism ward off Alzheimer’s?

Negative attitudes about aging may be a risk factor.

Those who regard the aging process with dread may be setting themselves up for future dementia.

Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, and colleagues recently analyzed data on a group of adults in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). All the adults were healthy and free of dementia at first. But those who held negative stereotypes of seniors at the start of the study were more likely to develop the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s later: a decrease in the volume of the brain’s hippocampus—a key memory center—and an increase in amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The study (published in Psychology and Aging) is believed to be the first to show that a “culture-based risk factor” can predict brain pathology related to dementia.

To determine attitudes about the elderly, the BLSA asked participants to give a yes or no answer to statements such as “old people are absentminded” and “old people are decrepit.” On average, the people in Levy’s study answered those questions more than 20 years before they had either MRI assessments (which revealed their hippocampal volume) or brain autopsies (which found plaques and tangles).

Among the 158 subjects who had MRIs, those holding more-negative views showed three times more hippocampal decline than those with less-negative views. Among the 74 subjects who had autopsies, the negatives had a “significantly greater accumulation” of plaques and tangles.

“In earlier experiments, we found that exposing older participants to negative age stereotypes increased their response to stress,” says Levy. “The negatives are pervasive in our society in many ways, so I’m always trying to bring positive role models into my own life.”

The comment period has expired.