First of all, as I am typing this I am having a flashback to adolescence and hearing an older adult barking at me to “change my attitude” as in “I don’t like that attitude young lady!” That is not the message I am going for here. What I want to talk about today is not scolding, it’s an amazing little nugget of science that, for me, is full of opportunity and hope.
Many of us think that our genes dictate our destiny. We have this fixed genetic code and we are stuck with it. As science has learned more and more about genetics, we have learned that our environment, our diet, our belief systems, community, etc all affect our health to a much greater extent than our genes do. Epigenetics is the study of the biologic factors that can change a gene’s expression. So we all have a genetic code, but how we live can determine which parts of that code are expressed or suppressed.
I recently read an article that demonstrated just this very concept. I found it so inspiring that I wanted to share it with you.
This study looked at attitudes about aging and dementia. One of the strongest risk factors for dementia is the E4 variant of the APOE gene. Interestingly, many folks who carry this gene don’t develop dementia. The study followed 4765 people aged 60 and over who were free of dementia at baseline. In the total group those with positive beliefs about aging were significantly less likely to develop dementia. Among those with the APOE E4 gene, those with positive attitudes about aging were 49.8% less likely to develop dementia than those with negative beliefs. WOW! Think about that. Having more positive attitudes about aging could decrease the risk of dementia by almost half. Talk about the power of positive thinking!
The authors of this study postulate that the mechanism by which attitudes lower dementia risk is stress. People who have more positive beliefs about aging are more resilient to ageism in the culture. We know that higher levels of stress increase cardiovascular disease and memory problems.
I have several questions about this study. I wonder if the attitude is what is really at play or if the attitude results in positive behavior change. For example, the investigators didn’t control for exercise status. Are folks who have more positive attitudes about getting older more likely to take better care of themselves? Are they also more likely to have a more supportive social network and be at less risk for social isolation?
Despite my questions, I still think this is an interesting read and an invitation to flip our thinking about getting older. Reframing our attitudes is free, has no side effects, (other than maybe smiling a little more) and may help combat dementia. How can you celebrate the wisdom of aging?
Check out the resources page if you would like the link to the article. Thanks.