Yale researchers demonstrated that individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. Similarly, scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System found that highly stressed participants were more than twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment—often a prelude to full-blown Alzheimer’s risk.
“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,” said Becca Levy, associate professor of public health and psychology at Yale School of Public Health, in a press release.
Echoes Mindy Katz, first author of the second article and senior associate, the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine: "We believe that how events are appraised has a major effect on health consequences. This is good news, because perception of stressful events is amenable to intervention."
A Healthy Mind, A Longer Life
Stinking thinking, or what psychologists call expectation bias, and its effects on aging are nothing new.
Thirty years ago, gerontologist Robert Atchely corralled two-thirds of a small town, Oxford, Ohio, to participate in his survey study, culminating in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. Participants answered questions such as “I am as happy now as I was when I younger” and “As you get older, you get less useful.” A previous study from Levy that drew upon this cohort found that a more “pro-aging” attitude about aging—such as continuing to feel happy and useful—lived on average 7.5 years longer than those who harbored “anti-aging” thoughts.
Ageism is entangled in Western culture and religion. The Protestant work ethic and the American dream both place high value on youth, especially those who are productive. Eastern mindsets, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, place older people more on a pedestal as a socially valuable part of life; seniors are viewed as going through a time of “spring” or “rebirth.”
Reversing the Western mindset and avoiding a self-fulfilling prophecy may now be a way to reduce the rapidly rising rate of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports has caused dementia in more than 5 million Americans this year.
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. Based on MRIs, the researchers found that participants who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain crucial to memory and one of the first areas of the brain to decrease in size from Alzheimer’s disease.
Autopsies from this cohort found that the pernicious proteins that gum up the ganglia of the brain—amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—appeared more often in individuals who held more negative than positive stereotypes of aging, the researchers reported in an online article in Psychology and Aging.
Zen And The Art Of [Mind] Maintenance
Further confirmation about the power of positive thinking can be found in another big city-based study. Katz and her team collected data from 507 people enrolled in the Einstein Aging Study, a 22-year longitudinal study of adults aged 70 years or older from Bronx County, N.Y. Specifically, they honed in on results from the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a 14-question survey that assesses participants’ perception of stress (due to ongoing life circumstances, possible future events, and other causes) over the previous month.
The group followed enrollees who began the study free of amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), the most common type of mild cognitive impairment, for an average of 3.6 years, overlapping answers to this chronic stress questionnaire with scores from recall tests and reports of forgetfulness.
Fourteen percent—71 of the 507 participants—received an aMCI diagnosis. The greater the participants’ stress level, the greater their risk for developing aMCI. Those with the highest stress faced a 2.5 times greater likelihood of developing aMCI than those who with a more Zen-like attitude.
The results, published online in Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders, held up on their own. Chronic stress impacts aMCI independently of other Alzheimer’s risk factors, such as depression—which increases stress as well as cognitive impairment—and the APOE gene, which predicts late-onset development of the disease.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
No cure exists for Alzheimer’s. Stress, however, is treatable. The study authors suggest that detecting and treating stress in older people—via mindfulness methods, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and stress-reducing drugs—may help delay or even prevent Alzheimer’s.
Jackie Oberst is Provider’s managing editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the magazine on Twitter @ProviderMag.