Though emotions are often fleeting, they can have a lasting impact on your health. Stress, for example, may heighten the risk of both chronic and acute health conditions, while happiness can improve wellbeing.
Now, a small new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging suggests that anger, far more than sadness, is linked to negative health effects in older people, potentially by contributing to inflammation and chronic disease.
The new research was borne from a theory developed by two of the study’s co-authors, psychologists Carsten Wrosch and Ute Kunzmann. The theory posits that all emotions — even negative ones — play an important, evolving role throughout a person’s life. “All negative emotions may have a positive function if experienced in the right context,” says Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Canada. Anger may motivate people to push through tough circumstances, for example, while sadness can kickstart the healing process after trauma.
But when people get older and face age-related problems, like the deaths of loved ones and the onset of physical and cognitive decline, some negative emotions may take a toll on physical health. Wrosch and Kunzmann analyzed data from the Montreal Aging and Health Study, which surveyed more than 200 adults ages 59 to 93 about their emotions three times over one week. People also reported their diagnosed health conditions and gave blood samples that researchers tested for markers of inflammation.
When people ages 80 and older regularly felt anger, researchers saw a link to elevated levels of the inflammatory marker IL-6 — perhaps because anger can throw off stress hormone levels. Inflammation is a normal process that the body uses to fight injury and infection, but chronic inflammation is associated with a range of health issues. Adults with elevated inflammatory markers were also more likely than their peers who didn’t feel as angry to have at least one chronic illness, such as cancer or cardiovascular problems. But researchers didn’t see the same link between sadness and health issues, Wrosch says, and anger wasn’t as strongly linked to inflammation and chronic disease among younger adults in their 60s and 70s.
Getting angry won’t fix the most serious problems that seniors face. Instead, Wrosch says, anger may only bring more stress and its attendant issues. “If people are angry and they try to resolve issues that they cannot resolve anymore, that prolongs problematic circumstances and may result in physiological dysregulation,” and, potentially, elevated inflammation levels, Wrosch says.
But even though being sad won’t stop the progression of Alzheimer’s or bring back a spouse, either, it can serve a purpose. While constant or inexplicable sadness can be the sign of a larger issue, like depression or loneliness, Wrosch says acute sadness is often a more appropriate reaction to late-in-life problems and may kickstart healthy grieving and healing. “Sadness may actually start the recovery process and help the person accept it,” he says. “It may also help recruit some social support from others to then help [them] cope with it.”
The study was small and preliminary, and it only showed associations between emotions and health. It also didn’t analyze the life circumstances that prompted their emotions, so it wasn’t possible to say whether each situation could or could not have been helped by anger. Still, Wrosch says it provides early evidence that people respond differently to varying emotions, even those that fall under the same general category of negative feelings. A separate new study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, reached a related finding about the link between emotional and physical health. It found that optimism, resilience and self-compassion were associated with better health among seniors, while loneliness was associated with worse health.
While it may seem difficult to control emotional responses, research suggests that people can learn to regulate them. To reduce anger, the American Psychological Association suggests doing relaxation and stress-relief practices like breathing exercises and yoga; using more rational and measured speech; improving your communication skills; and keeping your environment as stress-free as possible. The Mayo Clinic also recommends getting plenty of exercise and relying on humor and forgiveness.