How you think about ageing may determine the risk of dementia

Having a ‘positive mental attitude’ is often touted as beneficial in coping with many conditions, but does new research show it works with something like ageing?

Analysis of a group of 4,765 adults aged 60 and over, found the people who held positive beliefs about ageing had a 44 per cent lower risk of developing dementia than those with negative beliefs.

The Yale University led study examined whether culture-based age beliefs influence the risk of developing dementia among older people, including those who carry the high-risk gene variant APOE ε4.

Participants' were assessed using an "Attitude toward Ageing" scale, where 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.”

Becca Levy Professor of Public Health and Psychology, Yale University
One of the strongest risk factors for dementia is the ε4 variant of the APOE gene. Yet, many who carry it never develop dementia. The current study examined for the first time whether positive age beliefs that are acquired from the culture may reduce the risk of developing dementia among older individuals, including those who are APOE ε4 carriers. As predicted, in the total sample those with positive age beliefs at baseline were significantly less likely to develop dementia, after adjusting for relevant covariates.
Becca Levy Professor of Public Health and Psychology, Yale University

“We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia,” said lead author Becca Levy, a professor of public health and of psychology at Yale.

Among those with the APOE ε4 gene, those with positive beliefs about age, were 49.8% less likely to develop dementia than those with negative age beliefs.

The results suggest positive age beliefs, which are modifiable and have been found to reduce stress, can act as a protective factor, even for older people at high risk of dementia.

“This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism, which is a source of negative age beliefs,” said Professor Levy.

In Australia, dementia is the second leading cause of death of Australians contributing to 5.4% of all deaths in males and 10.6% of all deaths in females each year.

Here’s snapshot of what dementia in Australia looks like now. It’s sobering reading.

  • In 2016 dementia became the leading cause of death among Australian females, surpassing heart disease which has been the leading cause of death for both males and females since the early 20th century[1]. Females account for 64.4% of all dementia related deaths
  • In 2018, there is an estimated 425,416 Australians living with dementia
    • 191,367 (45%) males
    • 234,049 (55%) females
  • Without a medical breakthrough, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 536,164 by 2025 and almost 1,100,890 by 2056
  • Currently an estimated 250 people are joining the population with dementia each day.
  • The number of new cases of dementia will increase to 318 people per day by 2025 and more than 650 people by 2056
  • Three in 10 people over the age of 85 and almost one in 10 people over 65 have dementia
  • In 2018, there is an estimated 26,443 people with younger onset dementia, expected to rise to 29,375 people by 2025 and 42,252 people by 2056
  • An average of 36 people died per day where dementia was the underlying cause of death in 2016. Of the 13,126 people that lost their lives, 8,447 were female