No one who knew my late father-in-law would remember him as anything but a positive guy. A salesman by trade and artist by temperament, Craig Parker lived life in the optimist’s lane. His mantra: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
The worst thing that could happen to him was the Alzheimer’s that gradually rendered him uncommunicative. No more war stories from his time in the Pacific. No more diagrams on napkins and detailed explanations of how something or other was put together. Eventually, no more intelligible conversation at all.
I was thinking of Craig the other day after reading about a recent study at the Yale School of Public Health that found a connection between Alzheimer’s and one’s beliefs about growing old. Researchers there found that folks who faced aging with fear and foreboding were more likely than their positive counterparts to suffer changes in the brain that cause the disease.
This is how Becca Levy, an associate professor of public health and the study’s lead researcher, put it:
“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometime internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes. Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”
Using data from the seminal Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, Levy and her team found that those subjects who felt bad about growing old exhibited dramatically different brain scans than the more upbeat subjects. The hippocampus — crucial to the memory function — in their brains was smaller. Autopsies also showed they had a greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles — both indicators of Alzheimer’s.
Levy’s study adjusted for various risk factors, including health and age. And she noted that the beliefs expressed about aging were surveyed a good long time — an average of 28 years — before the plaques and tangles began to form.
There’s always an exception that proves the rule, I suppose, but it’s hard to imagine Craig Parker falling into the ranks of those dreading the future. Maybe all of society’s stereotypes about imminent decrepitude did get to him and he just never showed it. Maybe he was more of a worrier than I thought he was.
I kind of doubt it, though. Sometimes bad stuff happens to even the most positive among us. What Levy’s study tells me is that Alzheimer’s happens and that maybe ignoring all the hellish assumptions about aging will give a guy a slight edge against the disease — or maybe not.
Either way, I can’t make a persuasive argument in favor of sinking into despair, given all the obvious advantages of staying positive. After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen?