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Could Negative Thoughts Affect Your Risk of Dementia?

Apparently, yes! Research led by the Yale School of Public Health demonstrates that individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that causes dementia in more than 5 million Americans. Two Yale studies found a strong correlation between negative feelings about aging and the elderly and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. The studies further suggest that altering negative beliefs about aging could potentially offer a way to reduce the rapidly rising rate of Alzheimer’s.

The first study, published in Psychology and Aging, used data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging to determine how 158 participants viewed the aging process. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements about aging. They answered survey questions while in their 40s, then 25 years later, and had annual MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) for up to 10 years. Based on MRIs, researchers found that participants who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a “significantly steeper decline” in the volume of the hippocampus than their more positive-thinking peers. The hippocampus is crucial to memory, and its reduced volume is a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Using brain autopsies, researchers examined two other indicators of the 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. In some cases these views were expressed 28 years before the plaques and tangles were seen.

These studies, led by Becca Levy, associate professor of public health and psychology, are the first to link the brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease to a cultural-based psychosocial risk factor. Levy sees the link as stress-related: “We believe that stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals might internalize from society can result in pathological brain changes.” Levy is optimistic, however: “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.”

Beth Goren of the BodyMind Centering Association agrees: “The outcome of negative views of aging squares with earlier findings about the health risks associated with pessimism. We know that pessimism has been linked to a higher risk of dying before age 65, while positive emotions are associated with lowered production of the stress hormone cortisol, better immune function, and reduced risk of chronic diseases. We also know that optimism is at least partially learned, which suggests that Dr. Levy is right—it is possible to replace negative views with positive ones.”

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