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Negative Thoughts And Alzheimer’s Risk

People who regard the prospect of aging negatively are more likely to develop brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease than those who have a more positive outlook. On the plus side, changing those downbeat views may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. The findings that views of aging can influence Alzheimer’s come from a Yale study that looked at healthy individuals enrolled in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The researchers elicited the participants’ views on aging and followed up years later with MRIs - and in some cases brain autopsies - to see if a person’s outlook on aging correlated with brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. The MRIs showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, the brain area that is key to memory, among people whose views of aging were negative than among others in the study. The brain autopsies showed a significantly greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles - both brain changes indicating Alzheimer’s - in participants with negative views of aging. In some cases these views were expressed 28 years before the plaques and tangles were seen. Study leader Becca Levy, Ph.D., associate professor of public health and psychology, suggested that stress generated by negative views on aging might be responsible for the brain changes. Replacing negative beliefs with positive ones might help head off the impact of the pessimistic views, Dr. Levy said.


My Take? This is an interesting study. What it found about 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 - such as optimism - 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.