Sadness and depression can have huge impacts on mental health in older age, but researchers have now claimed anger could actually be worse for physical health in later years.
A new study, published by the American Psychological Association, shows anger potentially increases inflammation, which is associated with serious chronic illnesses including heart disease, arthritis and even cancer.
While short-term or acute inflammation can help protect the body and assist in healing, long-lasting inflammation is harmful because it causes the body’s tissue to die and thicken. This leads to pain, stiffness, swelling and even loss of joint function.
The loss of a loved one, decline in physical mobility and inability to complete activities are common reasons why older people may feel angry or sad and researchers wanted to analyse the difference these emotions play in physical health of people over 59.
“Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not,” study lead author Meaghan A. Barlow said in a statement.
The study, published in the Psychology and Aging Journal, analysed 226 people aged between 59 and 93 from Montreal. Participants were divided into two groups based on their age and were asked to complete weekly questionnaires about how sad or angry they felt.
Participants aged 79 and younger were placed in one group, while those over 80 made up the other. Researchers also measured inflammation from blood samples and asked participants about age-related chronic illnesses.
Experiencing anger daily was associated with higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness for those over 80, but not for the younger participants. Sadness was not related to inflammation or chronic disease and in some cases, could actually benefit people under certain circumstances.
Barlow explained that sadness helps some older people adjust to challenges such as age-related physical and cognitive decline because it helps them disengage from goals that are no longer attainable for them. Anger can have the opposite effect in some cases.
“Anger is an energising emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals. 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,” Barlow said.
“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.”
Therapy and education can help people reduce anger by regulating emotions or providing them with better coping strategies to manage changes associated with ageing.
“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,” Barlow said. “This may help them let go of their anger.”
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