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.