Is Anger Linked to Chronic Illness?

Adults who experience frequent bouts of anger are likely to have an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses, according to a recent study.


Aging is often accompanied by loss and sadness that unavoidably occur over time. Experiencing chronic illness or debilitating medical conditions, loss of loved ones and friends, and the inability to participate in previously enjoyed activities can negatively affect individuals’ emotional well-being. Additionally, over time adults may also sense new limitations and a loss of control over daily routines and lifestyle resulting from physical changes, hearing loss or failing eyesight.

Recent research published by the American Psychological Association has found that even more so than sadness, anger may be particularly harmful to an older person’s physical health, potentially increasing inflammation, which is associated with chronic illness such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer. “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 lead study author Meaghan A. Barlow, MA, a graduate teaching assistant at Concordia University in Montreal. “Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not.”

Adults who experience frequent bouts of anger are likely to have an increased risk of chronic illnesses, according to the study. Barlow and her co-authors examined whether anger and sadness contributed to inflammation, the body’s immune response to perceived threats, such as infection or tissue damage. Although inflammation in general helps to protect the body and contributes to healing, long-term inflammation can lead to chronic illnesses in old age, the authors found. Researchers gathered and analyzed data from older adults aged 59 to 93, grouping participants together as in early old age from the ages of 59 to 79 or advanced old age or aged 80 and older.

Participants completed questionnaires about how angry or sad they felt. Researchers also measured inflammation based on blood samples and inquired whether study participants had any age-related chronic illnesses. “We found that experiencing anger daily was related to high 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.”

“Anger is an energizing emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals,” said Barlow. “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.”

If you are experiencing ongoing anger issues, whether or not they’re related to aging experiences, be sure to seek guidance from your provider. He or she can help make recommendations the can help to reduce anger and regulate emotions or suggest coping strategies to manage factors that contribute to continuing anger.

Ithaca Primary Care

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