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Longevity Briefs: How Feeling Older Than Your Age Could Promote Cardiovascular Disease

Posted on 16 March 2022

Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Previous research has found that ageism and negative attitudes towards ageing in general correlate with shorter life expectancy and increased incidence of age-related disease. People who ‘feel older than their age’ are more likely to experience age related health problems in the future. There’s even evidence that changing the way you think about ageing might make you age more slowly. Of course, declining health also promotes pessimism about ageing, and while this is likely to explain part of the relationship, the reverse relationship is also plausible. Effects of pessimism on ageing could be explained by increased stress, which is linked to biological processes believed to play fundamental roles in ageing and the development of age-related diseases.

This graph, from a 2002 study, shows how people with higher positive self-perceptions of ageing (PSPA) have an increased probability of survival.

What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers investigated the link between between negative attitudes towards ageing, self-perceived age and cardiovascular disease (the deadliest age-related disease on the planet). Previous studies had shown that higher self-perceived age and negative attitudes towards ageing were associated with increased risk of heart disease and higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a molecule involved in inflammation. Since inflammation promotes heart disease, the researchers wanted to investigate whether CRP could be partly responsible for the relationship.

To do this, the researchers drew upon data from 6602 participants aged 50 to 101 from the Health and Retirement study, a study that surveys a representative sample of approximately 20,000 people in the United States and measures various biomarkers (including CRP) and psychosocial factors at regular intervals. The researchers selected participants who had no signs of heart disease between 2008 and 2010, then studied the occurrence of cardiovascular problems until the year 2018. They then analysed this data using a mediation model, which is a statistical approach for determining whether the link between two variables can be explained by a third variable.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: The researchers found that the data was consistent with the hypothesis that CRP mediates the link between attitudes to ageing and cardiovascular disease. Higher self-perceived age in comparison to actual age was associated with significantly higher levels of CRP two years later, which was in turn associated with a significant increased risk of heart disease and stroke in the years that followed.

This adds further support to the idea that negative attitudes to ageing could affect the risk of cardiovascular disease (and perhaps other diseases of ageing) through inflammation. Those who feel themselves to be older and less capable may experience greater levels of stress, which in turn leads to more inflammation and promotes disease.

This study didn’t actually investigate any direct markers of stress, so this is something that future studies might look into. It’s also worth noting that this study can only prove correlation, not causation. It’s still possible that participants with higher levels of CRP could have had undetected heart problems at the start of the study, for example. CRP is usually produced in response to other inflammatory molecules, which weren’t included in the Health and Retirement study (probably because they are harder to measure), so those molecules could still be partly or fully responsible for the increased disease risk and need to be studied in future research.

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