Positive Beliefs About Aging May Reduce Risk Of Dementia—Even If You Have High-Risk Genetics

Thinking positively about aging might significantly reduce a person's risk of dementia, a new study has found—even for people with one of the strongest genetic risk factors.

Researchers from Yale University and the National Institute on Aging studied nearly 5,000 people aged 60 and older, over a period of four years, and discovered those who held negative beliefs about aging were far more likely to develop dementia.

The team assessed their test subjects' perceptions about various aspects of old age by asking how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like “The older I get, the more useless I feel." 

The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

2_8_Old person A new study suggests that a positive view of aging may reduce a person's risk of developing dementia. Neticola Sny/Flickr

Genetic factors

According to the study, one of the strongest dementia risk factors is the ε4 variant of the APOE gene. One quarter of the U.S. population carries this variant, but only 47 percent of carriers develop a related brain disease. The new study is the first to analyze how cultural beliefs about aging affects dementia development, even in these high-risk patients.

People without the genetic variant who held "positive" age beliefs were 44 percent less likely to develop dementia than counterparts holding "negative" age beliefs. The results were even stronger in APOE ε4 carriers, who were 50 percent less likely to develop dementia if they held positive age beliefs.

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"We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia," said lead author Becca Levy, professor of public health and of psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, in a statement. "This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism, which is a source of negative age beliefs."

Stress and dementia

Stress may be a key factor in the development of dementia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported. Levy said: “Those who have more negative age stereotypes seem to have an exacerbated response to stress…Others have found that stress can be related to the development of dementia, so, our thinking is that it's possible that stress is part of the mechanism in what we're observing in this study."

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The study was limited by its approach to dementia testing, Henry Brodaty of the University of New South Wales in Australia, told ABC. Participants were diagnosed using a telephone call, not a full clinical assessment. In spite of this caveat, Brodaty said, the research was still significant. 

It is not yet known if negative attitudes can cause the development of dementia, or whether it’s the other way around.

Brodaty said: “We don't know yet whether changing beliefs will make a difference…if you could show that, then that would be interesting."