Health and wellness

Being positive about ageing can reduce your dementia risk, study into elderly population finds

As people get older they consistently say they feel much younger than their actual age, while healthy children of centenarians have a stronger sense of purpose, compared with the general population

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 3:11pm

We’ve heard all the clichés about ageing: you’re as young (or old) as you feel. Age is just a number. You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. Seventy is the new 50. Well-intentioned, perhaps. Offensive to some. Patronising, to be sure. But could they be true?

One study, for example, found that as people get older, they consistently say they feel younger – much younger – than their actual age. Another study examining the attitudes of the offspring of centenarians concluded that their children – if they, too, are healthy and long-lived – have a strong sense of purpose and meaning to their lives, compared with the general population. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that positive attitudes to ageing may reduce the risk of dementia.

The results are compelling in the context of negative messages about ageing from the media, in the workplace and elsewhere; negative messages were found to be far more prevalent than positive communications, according to the researchers.

“Children as young as three or four have already taken in the age stereotypes of their culture,” says Becca Levy, a professor of psychology at Yale University whose study found that older adults with positive beliefs about old age were less likely to develop dementia, including those who are genetically disposed. “These age stereotypes are communicated to children through many sources, ranging from stories to social media. Individuals of all ages can benefit from bolstering their positive images of ageing.”

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William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, agrees. “Negative views about ageing are communicated to us early in life, through media, books and films, and what our friends and family tell us,” Chopik says. “These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes – but that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment.”

Chopik’s study surveyed more than half a million Americans via the internet. “Sixty-year-olds felt like they were 46,” he says. “Seventy-year-olds felt like they were 53. Eighty-year-olds felt like they were 65. It looks like this is pretty consistent across age groups. People know that they are ageing, but they are evaluating themselves and their lives, and reporting feeling about 20 per cent younger than their current age.”

Feeling good about your life is important and should be considered an important aspect of healthy ageing.
Paola Sebastiani

He queried people from ages 10 to 89 and found that views change as they grow older. While people in their 70s and 80s reported feeling younger than their chronological years, teenagers and young adults equated turning 50 with hitting old age. This attitude persists into old age, according Chopik. When people turn 70, 80 seems old. When someone turns 80, 90 is old, he says.

“Part of that might arise from not wanting to be considered an older adult,” Chopik says. “As a result, people could be perpetually pushing what is considered an older adult into the future. It could also arise from people feeling good about themselves and their bodies, and coming to the realisation that, because of their negative beliefs about what it must feel like to be an older adult that ‘I must not be old’.”

The centenarians’ offspring study used data from the New England Centenarian Study, which has followed nearly 4,000 centenarians, and some of their siblings and children, since 1994.

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Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health compared healthy and long-living children of centenarians – average age, 82 – with three groups: Their spouses, their “birth cohort” (a group whose parents, though born at the same time as the centenarians, lived only into their early 70s) and participants in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of more than 30,000 individuals older than 50.

Using a survey that measured psychological well-being, they asked respondents to agree or disagree with such statements as: “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality” and, “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” They found that children of centenarians expressed more purpose in life than any of the other three groups.

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“Ageing well is not only escaping or delaying disease,” says study co-author Paola Sebastiani, a professor of biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health. “Feeling good about your life is important and should be considered an important aspect of healthy ageing.”

In her dementia research, Levy evaluated 4,765 older people over a period of four years – average age, 72 – who were free of dementia at the start of the study. The participants answered a series of questions about their beliefs about ageing. “We found [that] those who expressed more positive age beliefs at baseline were less likely to develop dementia … than those who expressed more negative age beliefs,” says Levy.

This effect was found for all participants, including those who carry the E4 variant of the gene APOE, which raises their dementia risk. About a quarter of Americans carry this variant, although only 47 per cent of them develop dementia, she says. The reason the remaining 53 per cent never develop dementia is unknown.

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The APOE E4 carriers with positive beliefs about ageing had a 2.7 per cent risk of developing dementia, compared to a 6.1 per cent risk for carriers with negative beliefs, according to the study. (Twenty-six per cent of the study participants were carriers.)

“We know … that exposing older individuals to negative age stereotypes exacerbates stress, whereas exposing them to positive age stereotypes can act as a buffer against experiencing stress,” Levy says. “It is also known that about half the people with the APOE E4 never develop dementia. Therefore, we thought that it is possible that those who have more positive age stereotypes – which can reduce stress levels – may have altered genetic expression in later life that reduces the likelihood of developing dementia.”

The results bolster the case “for implementing a public health campaign against ageism and negative age beliefs”, she says. Even “individuals in their 80s and 90s can strengthen their positive images of ageing”.

Chopik agrees, pointing out that all too often attitudes about ageing arise from anxiety over physical ability, appearance, loneliness or boredom. “However, many studies of older adults debunk these perceptions,” he says. “Older adults live enriching and very active lives – so these perceptions aren’t rooted entirely in reality.”