Feeling gloomy about ageing makes brain decline more likely

People who hold negative beliefs about ageing are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to research led by the Yale School of Public Health in the US.

The study, published in the journal Psychology and Ageing, suggests that debunking negative myths about ageing could reduce the rising rate of Alzheimer’s, which affects 850,000 people in Britain.

The researchers looked at MRI scans carried out on healthy subjects, and found that participants who had negative beliefs about ageing experienced a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that deals with memories. A reduced hippocampus is an indicator of Alzheimer’s.

This is the first study to link the disease with a ‘cultural-based psychosocial risk factor’. Becca Levy, the lead author and Yale’s associate professor of public health and of psychology, said:

‘We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about ageing that individuals sometimes internalise from society that can result in pathological brain changes.

‘Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realise that these negative beliefs about ageing can be mitigated and positive beliefs about ageing can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.’

Brain autopsies made an average of 28 years after the subjects beliefs about ageing were established showed that other indicators of Alzheimer’s were more prevalent. They found significantly more amyloid plaques, which are protein clusters that build up between brain cells, and neurofibrillary tangles, which are twisted strands of protein that build up within brain cells.

The results were adjusted for other known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including general health and age.

Levy has previously found that people with negative ideas about ageing tend to have poorer memory in older age.