Yale School of Public Health researchers have demonstrated that stress caused by negative attitudes and beliefs toward aging can lead to pathological brain damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The research paper, the first to correlate a cultural and psychosocial risk factor to Alzheimer’s disease onset, was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging.
The research study, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), included biostatistician Martin Slade of the Yale School of Medicine, neurologist Juan Troncoso of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and researchers from the NIA’s Intramural Research Program. The multifaceted research team analyzed, through MRI exams, the brains of healthy, disease-free participants in the country’s longest-running study of aging, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.
The team then compared imaging results of people with negative views and attitudes toward aging with those from people holding more positive views. They found that in the first group of participants, those with negative outlooks on growing old, a higher prevalence of an Alzheimer’s disease indicator — that of a reduced volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain central to short- and long-term memory formation and spatial navigation. Next, investigators performed autopsies on brain tissue from patients who, 28 years earlier, had been questioned on aging stereotypes and beliefs, to examine two other Alzheimer’s disease markers: amyloid protein plaques, or protein accumulation that leads to progressive neuronal death, and neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), aggregates of hyperphosphorylated tau protein that also cause neurodegeneration. Here again, people who had expressed negative stereotypes were found to have a significantly greater number of these pathological structures in their brain tissues. In both phases of the study, researchers had adjusted observations for other well-established risk factors, such as health status and age.
Dr. Becca Levy, associate professor of public health and of psychology at Yale, said in a press release, “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. 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.”
Overall, the study highlights the importance of a society’s views toward its elderly people, and how negative attitudes can damage a person’s health.