Thinking positive has long been linked with making us healthier, less stressed and better company.
Now, a Yale study has gone a step further, finding good news for those 60 plus who have positive beliefs about aging. They are less likely to develop dementia, says Becca Levy, PhD, professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. She is the first author of the study, published Feb. 7 in the journal PLOS One.
And, even more surprising, having the positive age beliefs even reduced the risk of dementia over the four-year study period for those who carry a variant of the APOE gene, putting them at high risk for dementia. Dementia, of course, is a progressive disease, gradually robbing those affected of their memory and the ability to function.
How Positive, How Much Risk Reduction?
Levy’s team studied nearly 4,800 men and women, all age 60 or older and free of dementia at the start of the four-year study. About one-fourth had the genetic variant that is a strong risk factor for dementia.
Levy gave the participants a well-known standardized 5-point test to gauge their age beliefs, positive or negative. To assess brain health, she gave them a standardized test every two years that looked at short-term memory, delayed recall and math skills.
Overall, taking all participants into account, 2.6% of those with positive beliefs and 4.6% of those with negative beliefs about ageing developed dementia over the study period.
Among those with positive beliefs and the genetic variant, positive age beliefs reduced their risk of dementia by 49% over the study period. Of those who had the genetic risk, 2.7% of those with positive beliefs at the study start got dementia but 6.1% of those with negative beliefs did.
Levy writes in her report: “The results suggest that positive age beliefs among those with APOE E4 could be capable of helping to offset the influence of this genetic risk factor. For APOE E4 carriers with positive age beliefs had a risk of developing dementia that is similar to the risk of their same-aged peers without APOEE4, regardless of their age beliefs.”
The measures were on a continuum, so Levy can’t say if you were positive about a certain number of questions, you reduced risk by a specific amount. “It’s a cumulative scale,” she says.
And the Questions Are…
- Do things keep getting worse as you get older?
- Do you have as much pep as you had last year?
- Do you feel that as you get older you are less useful?
- As you get older, are things ________than you thought? (Better or ?)
- Are you as happy now as you were when you were younger?
Explaining the Link
Levy found an association, not proof of cause and effect, of course. And she can’t say for sure why positive age belief seem to protect brain health. One possibility is that those who have more positive beliefs about aging are able to handle stress better. “Others have found stress is linked with dementia,” she says.
In other research, Levy has found that thinking positive about aging predicts better health behaviors, and that could be brain-protective.
Can you Learn Positive Age Beliefs?
Yes, but you need to realize some are ingrained, Levy says. “Children as young as three or four have already taken in age beliefs form their culture,” Levy says.
Of course the long-term remedy is to reduce ageism, she says. Until that happens, here’s what you can do to move the right way on the age belief spectrum. Levy’s tips:
- When watching TV and other media, pay attention to the portrayals, she says. “Does it make sense?” Look for positive role models about age, and watch that stuff.
Find positive models online. One of Levy’s favorites: Author and activist Ashton Applewhite, who can be found at This Chair Rocks. Spend five minutes on that site, and your positivity is bound to creep up, or maybe even soar.
Now that you ask, of course things are getting worse as I get older–I’m physically falling apart. Pep? What’s that? But on the other hand, damn right I’m useful if only younger persons would use my usefulness, which they don’t. Since I was a young grouch and now I’m an old grouch, the thing about happiness (cheerfulness?) is a hard one to answer. And didn’t I already answer the fill-in-the-blank question about whether things were getting worse or better? Since you seem to be a little forgetful, I’ll repeat my answer: of course things are getting worse. Every day in every way my body is betraying me with chronic aches and sudden pains and various unexpected twinges. How’s YOUR body doing?
Of course I long for the days when my body would obey my impulses without punishing me. If that means I wish I were younger, then yes, I guess I do. Anyone who says he or she is happy to be old is lying. . . or demented. As Kurt Vonnegut’s father cried out to the Universe in “Breakfast of Champions”—MAKE ME YOUNG, MAKE ME YOUNG! But wait. Do I really want to relive all that aging shit?