Is anger, but not sadness, associated with chronic inflammation and illness in older adulthood?

Psychol Aging. 2019 May;34(3):330-340. doi: 10.1037/pag0000348.


The discrete emotion theory of affective aging postulates that anger, but not sadness, becomes increasingly maladaptive during older adulthood in predicting health-relevant physiological processes and chronic disease (Kunzmann & Wrosch, 2018). However, it is largely unknown whether different negative emotions have distinct functional consequences in the development of older adults' physical disease. To start examining this possibility, we investigated whether older adults' daily experiences of anger and sadness were differentially associated with two biomarkers of chronic low-grade inflammation (interleukin-6 [IL-6] and C-reactive protein [CRP]) and the number of chronic illnesses (e.g., heart disease, cancer, etc.). In addition, we examined whether such divergent associations would become paramount in advanced, as compared with early, old age. A community-dwelling study of 226 older adults (age 59 to 93; M = 74.99, SD = 7.70) assessed participants' anger and sadness over 1 week, inflammatory processes, number of chronic illnesses, and relevant covariates. Regression analysis showed that anger predicted higher levels of IL-6 and chronic illness in advanced, but not in early, old age. The age effect of anger on chronic illness was mediated by increased IL-6 levels. Sadness exerted a reversed, but nonsignificant, association with IL-6 and chronic illness, independent of age. No emotion or age effects were obtained for CRP. The study's findings inform theories of health, emotion, and life span development by pointing to the age-related importance of discrete negative emotions in predicting a major physiological pathway to physical health across older adulthood. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Anger / physiology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Inflammation / psychology
  • Male
  • Sadness / psychology*