Negative views about age linked to Alzheimer’s brain changes

Posted on 7th December 2015

Psychology and Aging: A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s-Disease Biomarker

Research from the US reports that people who have more negative beliefs about getting older are more likely to show changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The study, carried out by researchers at Yale University School of Public Health, is published online in the journal Psychology and Aging on Monday 7 December.

Negative thoughts and personality traits such as neuroticism have been linked to poorer health outcomes, although the reasons for the underlying link remain unclear. This study aimed to investigate whether people who had negative beliefs about age were more likely to show Alzheimer’s-related brain changes such as the build-up of hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins and shrinkage of areas of the brain involved in memory.

The first part of the study followed 52 people with an average age of 68 who were members of a brain imaging programme as part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. As part of the research programme, they had yearly MRI brain scans for up to 10 years previously. None of the volunteers had dementia at the start of the study and all had been assessed for negative age stereotypes since 1968 using a scoring scale, which included asking people to rate how much they agreed with phrases such as “Old people are absent-minded”.

Over a 10-year period, those people with more negative beliefs about age had a faster rate of shrinkage of an area of the brain called the hippocampus, compared with those who had positive age stereotypes. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory and while it shrinks normally with age, this process happens more quickly in Alzheimer’s.

In the second part of the study, the research team studied the brain after death from 74 people, who had an average age of 88 when they died. Again, none of the volunteers had dementia at the start of the study. The researchers looked for hallmark Alzheimer’s changes in the brain, including clumps of the proteins amyloid and tau. They found that participants with negative age stereotypes were more likely to have higher levels of the hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins in the brain after death.

Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“This isn’t the first study to suggest a link between psychological factors such as personality traits or beliefs and brain health, but the complex factors influencing these relationships can be very hard to untangle. We know that some of the early changes associated with Alzheimer’s can happen 10-15 years before symptoms show and while the researchers tried to account for this, it’s hard to know whether these early changes had a knock-on effect on people’s social behaviours and attitudes or vice versa.

“Identifying trends and factors linked to Alzheimer’s can point to important areas of further study. The researchers behind this study suggest that negative age stereotypes may be linked to stress levels, which could negatively affect brain health. This study did not measure stress levels in the volunteers, but ongoing research is looking at the role that stress could play in diseases like Alzheimer’s. It’s also possible for people’s attitudes towards age to be influenced by other developing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease or depression, which could themselves be having an impact on the brain. It’s important to unpick the complex factors influencing brain health into older age in order to develop approaches to help people maintain their health and independence in later life.”

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