Part of aging is coming to terms with challenges like loss of mobility, loss of loved ones, chronic health issues and feeling isolated.
Because of this, older adults may experience anger and sadness which can also impact physical health as well as wellbeing.
In a new study, researchers from Concordia University found that anger can increase inflammation in older adults 80 years or older, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Inflammation is an important biological immune response that can help with healing or fighting infection, but long-lasting inflammation increases the risk of chronic disease in older adults.
Sadness was not associated with any harmful negative physical impacts and may help older adults process difficult emotions and experiences.
The study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging 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, the lead author of the research. “Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not.”
For the study, 226 adults aged 59-93 participated in a week-long survey answering questionnaires about their moods and medical history. The researchers also collected blood samples from the participants to measure inflammation.
After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered a link between inflammation and anger in the participants who were in advanced old age (80 years or older).
“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 Carsten Wrosch, a co-author of the study. “Sadness, on the other hand, was not related to inflammation or chronic illness.”
No such link was found for sadness, and some anger appeared to be beneficial for the participants who were in early old age (59 to 79), helping to motivate and increase determination to overcome a challenge.
“Anger is an energizing emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals,” said Barlow. “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 results show that anger may increase the risk of inflammation but not all negative emotions negatively impact health and wellbeing for older adults.
“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.”