Do negative attitudes about old age make people more vulnerable to serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease? A new report published in the journal Psychology and Aging suggests that it can.
Conducted by a team of researchers led by Becca R. Levy of Yale University, the report describes two research studies investigating whether stereotypes about aging held by healthy adults contributed to the brain abnormalities associated with Alzheimer’s disease as they grew older. According to the researchers, these stereotypes are often shaped by cultural beliefs as well as personal experiences with elderly people throughout our lives. Negative beliefs about aging can lead to greater stress and may affect how the body copes with the physical changes that come with age.
Previous research has shown that people with negative attitudes about aging are more prone to developing serious health problems later in life than their more positive-minded counterparts. Cardiovascular problems and high blood pressure are just some of the conditions that appear to be linked to greater pessimism about old age. On the other hand, having a more positive view about aging can have a protective benefit that helps people stay mentally and physically active for as long as their health allows.
But what about the neurological changes linked to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease? Brain researchers have identified key biomarkers that seem to be linked to the amount of cumulative stress people experience over their lifespan. These biomarkers can include a buildup of amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain as well as shrinkage of critical parts of the brain, specifically the hippocampus. Studies of people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) demonstrates the role that stress can play in brain development with PTSD leading to reduced hippocampal volume. Not surprisingly, people with negative stereotypes about aging are also much more vulnerable to developing PTSD following a traumatic experience.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post