Elderly people dancing
Elderly people dance during Saint Valentine's Day celebrations at the Canevaro old people's home in Lima February 14, 2012. Reuters/Mariana Bazo

Believing negative stereotypes about the elderly can put people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to research led by the Yale School of Public Health. People who hold prejudiced beliefs of aging, such as the elderly being helpless, weak and unhappy, will exhibit changes in the brain similar to the disease.

“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” Becca Levy, professor of public health and psychology, said in a press release. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”

This study is the first to link brain changes brought by Alzheimer’s disease with culture-based psychosocial factor. The researchers studied healthy individuals without dementia from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. MRIs showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus in subjects who have negative views about aging. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays a crucial role to memory and a reduction in this part’s volume indicates Alzheimer’s.

Researchers also examined dead people’s brains to identify amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two indicators that prove the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The autopsies of people who also held negative beliefs about the elderly reveal more of these plaques and tangles compared to people who did not.

“This interesting study suggests that having negative perceptions of old age, and the stress this can bring, can have an impact on your brain health,” said research officer at Alzheimer’s Society, Ian Le Guillou, the Daily Telegraph reports. “As we age, our risk of developing health problems does increase and it’s no surprise that people will worry, but there are positive actions that people can take to limit this risk. Research shows that a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking can reduce your risk of developing dementia.”

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