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INTERESTING STUFF – 19 December 2015

Can Ageist Beliefs Increase Your Risk for Alzheimer's?

That is the conclusion of associate professor Becca Levy and her fellow researchers at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut:

"What we found is that negative perceptions on aging are definitely significantly related to [Alzheimer's] disease indicators," said Levy of her most recent research project, reported at Health Day.

Levy has been studying the effects of ageist beliefs and behavior on the health and wellbeing of elders for at least as long as the 12 years I've been writing this blog. I reported here on a related study of Levy's in 2013.

“There is a name for this kind of demeaning speech,” I wrote then. “It's called 'elderspeak' and being the target of it can shorten an old person's life by up to 7.5 years according to the estimable Yale University associate professor of psychology, Becca Levy, because it reinforces a person's negative perception of their age:

“In a long-term study of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002,” reported The New York Times, “Dr. Levy and her fellow researchers found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising and not smoking.

”The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.” [emphasis added]

Elderspeak, of course, refers to baby talk and such language as “dearie,” “young lady,” “honey,” “sweetie,” and other cutesy names that are so loathsome when directed at old people.

Levy's latest research further reinforces and expands the damaging outcomes resulting from negative beliefs about growing old. Health Day explained how this new study was conducted:

”The research team first focused on more than 50 men and women who were dementia-free when they enrolled in the large, multi-decade Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. That project, launched by the U.S. National Institute on Aging in 1958, is the longest running American study on aging.

“Years later, all participants underwent annual brain-imaging scans (MRIs) for up to 10 years, with an average of seven scans per person. The goal was to pinpoint any changes in the size of the hippocampus region of the brain, an area known to play a critical role in memory regulation.

“Scan results were then paired against the views each participant had offered about a quarter-century earlier to 16 age stereotypes, such as 'old people are absent-minded.'” provided more details. After the study participants died, they report,

”The autopsy examiners looked for two well-known markers for Alzheimer’s disease: protein clusters known as amyloid plaques, and twisted protein strands known as tangles.

“Plaque and tangle presence was then correlated with the attitudes on aging the deceased participants had expressed nearly three decades before.

“Again, those who held more-negative views on aging early on were found to have a significantly greater presence of plaques and tangles.”

The results appear close to definitive. The Telegraph explained the study's conclusions:

”Put simply, people who have been conditioned by society to think they will become physically and mentally decrepit in older age, probably will...

“In contrast, upbeat, optimistic and active individuals who refuse to conform to ageist stereotypes, are likely to stay mentally alert for longer.

“The researchers say it could explain why westernised countries like the UK have such a high rate of dementia compared with India, where the elderly are venerated.

"'We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalise from society that can result in pathological brain changes," said lead author Dr Becca Levy.”

What is encouraging is that the negative beliefs about ageing can be changed and if positive beliefs can be adopted and reinforced. The “adverse impact is not inevitable,” Levy told Science Daily.

Whenever I write about the damaging outcomes of negative attitudes, beliefs and behavior toward elders and old age in general, there is a predictable number of comments from people who say that it's not important what other people say or think. The “sticks and stones” excuse I call it.

But it's simply not true as this latest study shows. What the general public and the culture at large believe affects our own feelings about ourselves and, more importantly, public policy - that is, how governments make decisions about elders (or any group being denigrated), how tax money is spent, who is allowed to work, even what kind of health care people is and is not administered.

Ageism is what fuels the billion-dollar cosmetic surgery and bogus anti-aging industries too. Nobody spends money on those procedures ad products who doesn't believe that growing old is the worst thing that can happen to them. Are they also raising their risk of Alzheimer's?


As many of you know, I live in an assisted living facility. I am surrounded by old people in all stages of physical and mental abilities. And, while there may be many negatives to living in such an environment, there is one very big plus. No one here is ever talked-down to. The staff is trained not to do this, and those that fall in to the ageist trap are soon put down by the residents. For the most part, an 80-year-old is spoken to the same way as a 60-year-old.
Unfortunately, people on the "outside" who are not used to dealing with the elderly and are influenced by what they see on TV and the movies, view us as feeble, comical wacko's who should be humored, but never taken seriously. And, it's partially our own fault.
Over the years many of us have given in to the stereotype. We dress old. We think old and we look down at the younger generation forgetting that we were once them. Thankfully, much of that is changing. Old folks are hipper, more informed and more tolerant to new ideas than ever before. The problem lies in getting those young whippersnappers to realize it.

Co - incidentally this came up at a healthy aging meeting I was at yesterday where the consensus was to do everything to so looking old much to my protest and chagrin. I will forward this to all on committee. Thank you!


It is interesting that elderly entertainment stars are not addressed in the manner we so detest--as though they are 3 or 4 years old.

Celebrity in all its tech arrayed presentations is immune the the ageist treatment we have all experienced. The way our society views you as "somebody" has been coopted. The outcome of all that media hoopla and worship of those in the news, leaves a lot of "nobodies" in its wake.

We, as elders, are one of the "nobody" group as are so many other disenfranchised people--hence the frustration on all levels but the "somebody" level--those who have wealth, access, and adoration by the masses--and in too many instances a power that is not backed by integrity, caring, or mindfulness.

Any hint of a negation of the labels and a seeking to be on a level playing field, brings charges of "whining, wanting privileges" and other put downs. How can a society, let alone a segment of that society be healthy without respect and caring being the leading motivation of those who hold all the cards?

I haven't read the study so the research may have already accounted for this, but if the people with the most negative attitudes about aging also had the most negative life experiences with impaired elders when forming attitudes -- such as, say, if factors causing age-related dementias are inherited within families -- then the "correlation is not causation" rule might answer the "sticks and stones" reply to skepticism about this result.

As Barbara Ehrenreich and others so ably point out, it's very dangerous to posit that individual attitudes and thoughts can alter cellular processes directly. It's not far from there to blaming those with chronic diseases and conditions for causing them themselves -- which is just fine with lots of powerful interests. I'm most intrigued right now with the study suggesting a connection between use of anti-depressants in pregnant women with a higher risk of autism. There are problems with that study too -- can't do a double-blind study on this -- but you can bet that there are some big drug companies who would do anything to blame the increased autism on anything other than their products.

Before we decide that your attitude about aging is a risk factor for age-related dementia, let's keep working on more straightforward explanations.

Very interesting and important. BTW, you might want to fix the typo in Yale School of PUBIC Health. (Feel free to trash this comment afterward.)

Can you hear me laughing, Diane? It's a typo I make way too often - I wonder what that says about me. Thanks for the heads up.

I feel obliged to point out that "honey," "dearie," and "sweetie" are common forms of address in the South. They are not reserved for old people and are not intended to denigrate anyone.

Without too much thought, here are two experiences:
With some who dread aging, while also often longing for the past, they go down the path to continual distress or mild depression, or 'drink to forget' their new limitations, loss of physical flexibility, etc., or become bitter and think they're '...raging against the dark.' Any of these might be a reaction to others' attitudes, but mostly they belong to the mindset of the elder person. These actions then lead to accidents and situations where they might end up with aging more quickly, I believe.

At a grocery store the other day, I reached to carry out a box of groceries, not too heavy, when a woman with her son behind me asked if they could help me carry them out. I smiled, said thank you but that I could handle it ok, which was true, but I also instantly knew I was taking a can-do, show-you attitude. Later I thought perhaps she was offering her son an opportunity to connect with me(72 & gray hair), and that's something I'd like to promote. So I'm going to try being more mindful and not quite so defensive. I think we all would have felt good. In fact, I might ask a youngster to help me one of these days. The defense I'll save for those who demean with their silly, condescending words.

I see John's reasoning and the resultant assumptions that could arise and be more problematic, but also believe there are strong physical/mental interactions within our bodies. To a cellular degree, not so sure, though the studies you relate are pretty convincing. I live close to SRI and remember their work with Yuri and the lifting spoon, studying the power of mind over matter. OK - I forgot how it ended....

SCJones, I agree 100% with your comments about the wealthy and the disenfranchised, which is obvious to those who stay aware.

This is why I have hip blue streaks in my hair and acrylic nails.

Yes Jean! I've always enjoyed playing with my hair, not cosmetics, just hair, so my grey hair has a few shades that I have sparsely painted (literally)onto it. A playful indulgence - I might try those blue streaks, tho - they sound like fun!


I started dyeing my hair again specifically because I found that with non-gray hair fewer people show me that they don't take me seriously ("dear," "sweetie," "young lady," etc., plus talking loudly and slowly to me).

Now, I think it's true that I should have a better sense of myself than to allow other people's perceptions of me to alter my own. But, face it, there are time when we NEED to be taken seriously e.g., at the ER, by the police, etc. Re-coloring my hair was my minor cave-in to the forces of ageism.

Wait, wait--the worst part is that I actually feel better about myself when I think I look younger. There it is. I admit it. Like almost all of us, I too am affected by the insidious forces of ageism. Sigh.

Sweetie is a family name for us too, from 0 to past 100 but no one uses it outside the family. I think besides the ageist aspect by outsiders using it I would add those people telephone sales idiots who think calling me by my first name will trick me into paying attention to them.

In my own family I know my Mom thought her life was over when she was 40. She hated getting old. She had a hard life growing up and was angry and depressed lifelong. She died younger than any in my close family. The rest of them were pragmatic, and/or optimistic and made it into their late 80's and some beyond in spite of whatever had afflicted them. Often they made a joke of it. I think the negative public perceptions do really contribute but so does a person's life story and their emotional make-up. Why are some of us resilient and a sibling not? We can contribute to changing this culture of anti-old. I have 11 assorted grandkids and I talk to them about aging, encourage them to ask questions and see me as person, with a history, possibilities (even though they have certainly changed), feelings not unlike their own and at least one sibling I still "fight" with.

Simone--For at least 20 years, people have tried to do things "for" me. My answer is nearly always similar to yours. The thing I add with my smile is, "If I don't do for my self, I won't be able to - when no kind person is around!"

Yesterday, for the first time in my life (I'm "going on" 78), I "let" a grocery bagger (Jason) carry my bags to my car. Although I was parked near the door, the wind and temperature made the conditions unpleasant and my knee has been quite painful this week; so, it was worth the tip! I guess that there comes a time.

To Kate--nothing wrong, I think, to wanting to be taken seriously. I play in a small jazz band--keyboards. The other members are all men, not sexist or ageist, as far as I can tell. They are all younger than I (I am 75). One is considerably younger, but the others are in their sixties. I do not advertise my age for the same reason--I want to be taken seriously. I think I've proven myself by now, and I won't lie about it if it comes up, but yes, I'm reticent. Our leader makes comments about how this or that old musician can, surprisingly, still play. We know a wind player in his 80's who is spectacularly skilled & talented--and those instruments require good lungs. But he can be unpleasant and tactless at times Our leader takes the position that at his age he's entitled. Bleah!

And they used to tell us words could never hurt us.

There is no doubt, attitude matters.

Bruce and S.C Jones, your comments resonated with me, big time.

I volunteer in an autonomous living senior residence, and witness a great variety of attitudes, beliefs, actions. Some seniors are sure that this will be their last stop on the highway of life, while others look forward and enjoy every single day.

Attitude plays a big role in aging.

Whenever I start projecting what "might happen" down the road to my ninety something mom, she responds like this:

"Don't bring the mountain to you."

I am married to a person who has always been upbeat, happy, physically active, professionally successful, fun and optimistic. But now he has Alzheimer's.
So, gee, I guess he is is an anomaly, some kind of strange exception?

Having read this article and these posts, I stand amazed at people's willingness to believe in hopeful claptrap, so they can sigh in relief ("Oh good, this will never happen to me!"). The bottom line here is the perennial and pernicious desire, to which only one person (John) alluded, of wanting to blame the victim in order to spare oneself.

I always appreciate Bruce Cooper's comments because he has a perspective most of us don't.

This post and comments is definitely one to read carefully again.

Syd and I are in our 70's. We have our ailments but we are still in our own home and don't focus on that. Don't care what others think about our quiet life and Kay cera ....what will be. There is a book about comments made in assist living....quite quirky.

Thank you for this very interesting, substanciated post. I enjoyed reading it as well.

I will be 70 in a few months. For years I have fought agism. The Italian culture my partner came from is very much into helping those in the generation ahead of them. I feel it takes away independence.

My approach for myself, and when I raised my daughter, was things should not be done for someone unless they couldn't do them for themself. I've had to struggle against the helping popularity, but I stick to my view.

As to my appearance, I color my hair because I know I will feel much older if the person I see in the mirror looks old. I have fine, thin hair. If it's white too I will look decrepit even though I refuse not to be so.

Phooey on Ms. Levy's study! I'm with John....there are other worthy areas of research that deserve much more attention. Severe autism is worse than Alzheimer's because it robs the entire family of their life forever. The worst of Alzheimer's and the dementia's come in the last 3-4 years. That's not saying any of it is okay, or that we should ignore helpful research, but Levy's falls into that nebulous category that doesn't prove anything or help in any way.

As a Senior Citizen, this is the kind of situation that aggravates me: I take a an art class at a local college. In October, I asked one of my 20-year-old classmates for the dates of midterm. She replied, "December." I replied, no, I was asking about the midterm dates and not finals dates. She looked blank for a moment and then gave me the correct reply. No one thought anything about it. However, if she had asked me about the midterm date and I had given her a reply of the finals date, everyone in the class would have been shaking their heads over the poor old lady having a senior moment. Our grandchildren are allowed so-called "senior moments" and yet if any senior stumbles over an answer, then she must have Alzheimer's.

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