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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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