Anger more harmful than sadness in older people

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Anger may be more harmful to an older person’s physical health than sadness, potentially increasing inflammation, which is associated with such chronic illnesses as heart disease, arthritis and cancer, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“As most people age, they simply cannot do the activities they once did, or they may experience the loss of a spouse or a decline in their physical mobility and they can become angry,” said Meaghan A Barlow, of Concordia University, lead author of the study. “Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not.”

Barlow and her co-authors examined whether anger and sadness contributed to inflammation, an immune response by the body to perceived threats, such as infection or tissue damage. While inflammation in general helps protect the body and assists in healing, long-lasting inflammation can lead to chronic illnesses in old age, according to the authors.

The researchers collected and analysed data from 226 older adults ages 59 to 93 from Montreal. They grouped participants as being in early old age, 59 to 79 years old, or advanced old age, 80 years old and older.

Over one week, participants completed short questionnaires about how angry or sad they felt. The authors also measured inflammation from blood samples and asked participants if they had any age-related chronic illnesses.

“We found that experiencing anger daily was related to higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness for people 80 years old and older, but not for younger seniors,” said study co-author Dr Carsten Wrosch, also of Concordia University. “Sadness, on the other hand, was not related to inflammation or chronic illness.”

Sadness may help older seniors adjust to challenges such as age-related physical and cognitive declines because it can help them disengage from goals that are no longer attainable, said Barlow.

This study showed that not all negative emotions are inherently bad and can be beneficial under certain circumstances, she explained.

“Anger is an energizing emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals,” said Barlow. “Younger seniors may be able to use that anger as fuel to overcome life’s challenges and emerging age-related losses and that can keep them healthier. Anger becomes problematic for adults once they reach 80 years old, however, because that is when many experience irreversible losses and some of life’s pleasures fall out of reach.”

The authors suggested that education and therapy may help older adults reduce anger by regulating their emotions or by offering better coping strategies to manage the inevitable changes that accompany aging.

“If we better understand which negative emotions are harmful, not harmful or even beneficial to older people, we can teach them how to cope with loss in a healthy way,” said Barlow. “This may help them let go of their anger.”

The discrete emotion theory of affective aging postulates that anger, but not sadness, becomes increasingly maladaptive during older adulthood in predicting health-relevant physiological processes and chronic disease (Kunzmann & Wrosch, 2018). However, it is largely unknown whether different negative emotions have distinct functional consequences in the development of older adults’ physical disease. To start examining this possibility, we investigated whether older adults’ daily experiences of anger and sadness were differentially associated with two biomarkers of chronic low-grade inflammation (interleukin-6 [IL-6] and C-reactive protein [CRP]) and the number of chronic illnesses (e.g., heart disease, cancer, etc.). In addition, we examined whether such divergent associations would become paramount in advanced, as compared with early, old age. A community-dwelling study of 226 older adults (age 59 to 93; M = 74.99, SD = 7.70) assessed participants’ anger and sadness over 1 week, inflammatory processes, number of chronic illnesses, and relevant covariates. Regression analysis showed that anger predicted higher levels of IL-6 and chronic illness in advanced, but not in early, old age. The age effect of anger on chronic illness was mediated by increased IL-6 levels. Sadness exerted a reversed, but nonsignificant, association with IL-6 and chronic illness, independent of age. No emotion or age effects were obtained for CRP. The study’s findings inform theories of health, emotion, and life span development by pointing to the age-related importance of discrete negative emotions in predicting a major physiological pathway to physical health across older adulthood.

Barlow, Meaghan A; Wrosch, Carsten; Gouin, Jean-Philippe; Kunzmann, Ute

American Psychological Society material
Psychology and Ageing abstract

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