Anger more harmful to health of older adults than sadness

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Summary: Experiencing daily anger increases inflammation and raises the risk of developing chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, in those aged 80 and over.

“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, MA, of Concordia University, lead author of the study, which was published in Psychology and Aging. “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 analyzed 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 Carsten Wrosch, PhD, 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.

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