Whether you take a glass half-empty or a half-full view on older age can affect your chances of developing dementia.

New research released this week shows that older adults who have acquired positive beliefs about old age from their surrounding culture are less likely to develop dementia.

The research, led by Becca Levy from the Yale School of Public Health, investigated whether culture-based age beliefs influence the risk of developing dementia among older people, including those who carry the E4 variant of the gene APOE, which has been identified as a high risk factor for dementia. The researchers studied a group of 4,765 people, with an average age of 72 years, who were free of dementia at the start of the study. Twenty-six per cent of the participants in the study were carriers of APOE E4.

Over the four-year study duration, the researchers found that 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 those with negative beliefs about ageing.

“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. “This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism and negative age beliefs.”

Executive director of the New Zealand Dementia Co-operative Shereen Moloney says that while there is New Zealand research into the effects of diet, exercise, cardiovascular health and meaningful activities on general, including cognitive health, there’s currently no New Zealand research addressing the particular question of whether a positive view of ageing reduces the risk of dementia.

However, the Te Puāwaitanga O Ngā Tapuwae Kia Ora Tonu/ Life and Living in Advanced Age, a Cohort Study in New Zealand, otherwise known as LiLACS NZ, is a longitudinal cohort study of New Zealanders living in advanced age, led by the University of Auckland School of Population Health. It aims to determine the predictors of successful advanced ageing and understand the trajectories of health and wellbeing in advanced age in a Māori and non-Māori New Zealand population.

“A positive view of aging has been shown to have broad health benefits,” says Moloney. “If you have a positive view of ageing, you are more likely to be involved in the sort of healthy lifestyle that reduces the risk of dementia, such as socialisation, ongoing learning, physical activity, attention to medical issues and not drinking too much or smoking. Depression is a risk factor for dementia and also likely to contribute to a negative view of ageing.”

The health issues of our ageing population, particularly dementia, are already stressing our health and social care system, and things are only going to get worse as the number of older people in increases, says Moloney.

“All this research is evidence that a public health campaign against ageism that promotes positive beliefs about aging would have great benefits for the New Zealand population in general, and would help to relieve the increasing pressure on our health and social care system.”

The New Zealand Government’s 2014 report on positive ageing talked about progressing the Business of Ageing project and developing age-friendly cities as means of encouraging better attitudes towards ageing.

AgeWell, a health promotion site for older New Zealanders, says optimism, faith, confidence, a sense of humour and adventure, and determination have all been identified as key attitudes older Kiwis see as important for positive ageing. A sense of pride, an interest in sustaining relationships, tenacity of self in a changing world and a desire to live a quality life are all indicators of positive attitudes.


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