The loss of loved ones can hit the elderly particularly hard, but a new study suggests it’s anger, and not sadness, that may damage the ageing body more.
Anger can increase inflammation, which is linked with conditions such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis, the researchers said.
Development of chronic illnesses
“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,” explained lead author Meaghan Barlow, of Concordia University in Montreal.
“Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not,” she added.
For the study, the investigators looked at 226 adults, aged 59 to 93, in Montreal, who completed questionnaires about how angry or sad they felt. The participants were also asked if they had any chronic illnesses, and blood samples were collected from them to measure inflammation.
According to study co-author Carsten Wrosch, of Concordia University, the findings showed 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”.
However, sadness was “not related to inflammation or chronic illness,” Wrosch added in an American Psychological Association news release.
Barlow suggested that sadness may help older seniors adjust to challenges such as physical and mental declines because it can help them disengage from doing things that are no longer possible.
An energising emotion
So, she explained, negative emotions – including anger – aren’t always bad and can be beneficial under certain circumstances.
“Anger is an energising emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals,” Barlow said.
“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,” she added.
Education and therapy may help older adults keep anger in check by regulating their emotions or by providing them with strategies to manage aging-related physical and mental changes, the study authors noted.
“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.”
The findings were published in the journal Psychology and Aging.