Every few weeks there seems to be a new story about how attitudes towards aging affect the way older minds and bodies function. Better attitude, better health. The latest was an irresistibly titled one in the Los Angeles Times: “Karma bites back: Hating on the elderly may put you at risk of Alzheimer’s.”
Bile probably keeps a lot of people going—it’s having a purpose, more than anything else, that seems to forestall cognitive decline—but this latest study is impressive. Led by the National Institutes of Health’s chief scientist on brain aging, researchers used both MRI scans and autopsies to study the brains of participants in the blue-chip Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The scans showed that people with the most negative perceptions of aging showed a key sign of dementia: dramatically greater shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is critical to maintaining memory. The brain autopsies revealed that two other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease—amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—were far more common in key regions of the brains of those who equated aging with debility and decline.
“By both measures, the brains … looked strikingly different,” observed health and science reporter Melissa Healey. “The results held even after researchers took account of age, sex and a range of factors that can affect brain health. And the fact that the observations held for two different means of measuring brain structure—over time and after death—clearly suggests that attitudes about aging influence brain structure, and not that people with as-yet-undiagnosed Alzheimer’s are simply more negative about aging.”
What underlies these pathological changes? “We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society,” said Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health, who was also involved in the study and has conducted fascinating research in this arena.
How do you feel about growing older? Where do your beliefs come from? Are they based on facts or on fears and hearsay? Find out, by nosing around on this blog, watching a little video, and picking up on age bias in the culture around us. It’s no more acceptable than sexism or racism or homophobia. It fills us with needless dread. And it actually makes us sick. Live longer, live better, and speak out against ageism.