Do you think that the older you get, the worse off you are? You shouldn’t, at least according to a recent Yale study showing that positive beliefs about old age may protect against dementia.
The study, conducted by Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy and colleagues Martin Slade and Robert Pietrzak at the Yale School of Medicine, examined a group of about 5,000 adults above the age of 60 who did not have diagnosed dementia prior to the study. The team found that the adults who had absorbed positive age beliefs from their cultures were significantly less likely to develop dementia over a four-year period.
“The study addresses whether the way in which cultures portray older adults has an impact on their aging,” Levy told the News. “We conducted experimental studies following people over time and have found evidence that the age stereotypes that people take in from their culture can have an impact on different types of health outcomes.”
Levy initially approached the research through a genetic lens. She said she wondered why, out of those who carry the ε4 variant of the APOE gene — one of the strongest determinants of dementia — only half actually develop the disease. Although researchers still don’t have a good grasp of the reasons for this phenomenon, Levy suspected that environmental factors could play a role in the expression of the APOE gene.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE on Feb. 7, showed that carriers of the high-risk gene who held positive beliefs about aging were 50 percent less likely to develop dementia than carriers with negative beliefs, supporting Levy’s theory that environmental factors, such as cultural stereotypes, influence a person’s chances of developing dementia.
But how does thinking positively about aging act as a barrier against dementia? Although the exact mechanism is not yet known, Levy suspects that the process may involve stress.
“Based on other research studies, we do have evidence that negative age stereotypes that individuals acquire from their culture can exacerbate stress,” Levy said. “Other research has discovered stress as a risk factor for developing dementia.”
Two years ago, Levy found a correlation between negative age beliefs and Alzheimer’s disease. Her most recent study is a continuation of her research on whether culture-based stereotypes and ageism impact older individuals’ health.
Levy’s discovery has important implications, especially since dementia has no known cure.
Richard Marottoli ’84 MED ’91 SPH , an internist at the School of Medicine who previously worked with Levy but was not directly involved in this study, thinks that the research offers new insight into dementia intervention.
“At present, our treatment options for dementia are limited, as are our options for prevention — activity (physical, cognitive, social), avoidance of alcohol and control of vascular risk factors,” Marottoli wrote in an email to the News. These findings offer hope for another potential, nonmedical approach, he added.
Aykhan Alibayli SPH ’18, a teaching assistant for Laurie Santos’ course “Psychology and the Good Life,” was equally excited by the results of the study.
“I think this finding is great news because it shows that we are not mere victims of our genetic predispositions and we can in fact take actions, through various intentional activities, to improve our cognitive and emotional well-being.”
Around 50 million people have dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year, according to the World Health Organization.
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