How Positive Thinking About Aging May Be Lowering Our Risk Of Dementia

A study from the United States has found older adults with a positive attitude towards ageing may be less likely to develop dementia, even if they are genetically predisposed to it.

Yale University researchers studied a group of more than 4,000 adults aged 60 and above and found those who held positive beliefs about ageing had a 44 per cent lower risk of developing dementia (even if they were at a higher risk) compared to those who held negative beliefs.

The risk was even lower among people with a genetic predisposition to dementia.

The study, suggests that positive age beliefs may act as a protective factor against dementia, supporting the case for a public health campaign against ageism.

Dr Becca Levy and her colleagues at Yale School of Public Health recruited 4,765 American adults with an average age of 72 who did not currently have dementia.

The first step of the research was to assess the participants' attitudes towards ageing then assessing them every two years on a range of cognitive skills to determine whether they had developed dementia.

Participants' beliefs about ageing were assessed using an "Attitude toward Ageing" scale, in which they were asked about the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "The older I get, the more useless I feel".

If somebody strongly agreed with that statement, they would be given a score that suggests they have a more negative belief about ageing. But if they disagreed, then they would receive a score that indicates a positive view of ageing.

To assess the potential effects of the study on people genetically predisposed to dementia, 26 per cent of people included in the sample were carriers of the APOE-e4 gene variant, one of the strongest risk factors for dementia; affecting one fifth of Australia's population. 

Researchers found overall that participants who had positive beliefs about ageing had a 43.6 per cent lower risk of developing dementia over the course of four years, compared to those holding negative beliefs.

The difference was even more significant for those with the APOE-e4 gene variant with those who had positive beliefs having a 49.8 per cent lower risk of developing dementia compared to their high-risk counterparts holding negative beliefs.

The results took account of other factors that could influence the findings, including age, education, sex, race, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and baseline cognitive performance.

Stress may explain why as studies suggest the mechanism by which age beliefs may influence the development of dementia is likely to involve stress, as it was found that individuals who had more positive age beliefs had lower stress levels. It was also shown that those who have more negative age stereotypes seem to have an exacerbated response to stress.

It has been found that stress can be related to the development of dementia so its possible that stress plays a major role in the findings of the study.


However the results should be interpreted with some caution because the diagnostic tool used to identify patients with dementia — a short telephone interview — was not the gold standard for diagnosing dementia.