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Aesthetic surgery and Alzheimer’s risk

A growing body of scientific support for the notion that an individual’s attitudes toward aging and personal appearance could have profound effects upon physical and mental well-being. As a result, I began to wonder whether it’s possible that such attitudes may, in measurable ways, impact the development of specific diseases.

A recent study from the journal Psychology and Aging suggests that younger and middle-aged adults who held more negative age stereotypes faced a higher risk for Alzheimer’s later in life. The research, based on brain imaging and autopsy findings, found changes in related parts of the brain in participants who had more negative attitudes toward aging. (Data were collected over decades from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.)

Some argue that pessimism about aging brings about more stress, which may be a factor in risk for Alzheimer’s. Research showing that individuals often suffer loss of self-esteem and a perceived diminishing of sexual identity, social power, social visibility, and position in the workplace as psychological effects of an aging appearance. Interestingly, a 2005 study of 60- to 92-year-olds, from the journal International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that negative views of aging were especially prevalent in those who watched more television. In the same way unrealistic images of beauty in the media negatively impact women’s body image, negative stereotyping of older people in the media appears to have an adverse effect on the elderly.

Regardless of the precipitator, for many individuals, these feelings are productive of high levels of stress. If stress is indeed a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s, then one can certainly see how negative perceptions of aging could possibly contribute to increased risk for this debilitating disease. So what can the public do to remediate stress and potentially reduce their own risk of Alzheimer’s now or, more specifically, as they age?

As a practicing aesthetic surgeon, I call on professionals in my own field, as well as other specialists – in particular neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists – to research the potential of body modification to improve one’s body image attitudes and contribute to the reduction of stress as result. I believe this is a promising area for long-term study.

Attitudes about aging could, directly or indirectly through stress or other mechanisms, affect brain chemistry. Having a more positive attitude toward growing older may result when individuals feel empowered to exert greater control over their own personal aging process through aesthetic interventions. A study conducted at the Mayo Clinic and presented at a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) suggests that women who undergo a facelift may live more than 10 years longer than those who do not. Although a variety of factors might be responsible for the difference in longevity, the study’s authors acknowledge “self-esteem and life optimism” could be contributory. Recently the Aesthetic Surgery Journal published an editorial by Dr. Steven Dayan who proposes that mood elevation may be related to the concept of happiness, or the so-called “facial-feedback hypothesis, which suggests that the emotion follows the expression.” Moreover, aesthetic surgeons should take an aggressive role in anti-aging research. A substantial part of an aesthetic surgeon’s day is meeting with patients, and helping them decide what treatments may benefit them, including anti-aging treatments and surgical procedures.

Let me be clear—I am not suggesting a marketing campaign to promote aesthetic surgery as a preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, far from it. But this connection is worthy of broader research and discussion. The power of aesthetic surgery to change lives is something we talk about a lot, but are less often able to prove scientifically. With more research and a better understanding about this link, physicians, researchers, and patients could potentially see benefits across medical specialties.

Featured image credit: Ages by Luisb. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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