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.'”
Health.com 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?