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A healthy attitude toward aging might keep you healthier

January 4, 2016
by Nicole Stempak, Associate Editor
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Change your attitude about aging, and you may just change how your brain ages.

Middle-aged people who believed older people were slower, unhappier and less sharp are more likely decades later to exhibit brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease, according to a first-of-its-kind study to link the disease to a cultural-based psychosocial risk factor. This study was published in the journal "Psychology & 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," says lead author Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health in a university-issued news release. "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."

Researchers reviewed data from 158 healthy people without dementia enrolled in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the nation's longest-running scientific study of aging. Participants were asked to rate their attitudes about aging in their 40s. About 25 years later, they began a decade of annual MRI brain scans. MRI scans showed people who held negative age stereotypes saw the same amount of decline in three years as the more positive group saw in nine years.

Then researchers used brain autopsies to examine two other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease: amyloid plaques, protein clusters that build up between brain cells; and neurofibrillary tangles, twisted strands of protein that build up within brain cells. Participants holding more negative beliefs about aging had a significantly greater number of plaques and tangles. The age stereotypes were measured an average of 28 years before the plaques and tangles.

Access the study here.

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