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Why Managing Emotions May Protect Your Brain from Old Age

Negative emotions can trigger changes in brain communication.

As we age, the mind tends to wander forward in time, considering myriad hypotheticals of increasingly philosophical tone: Will we live a long life? And if we do, will it be a life well lived? What does living well mean, exactly?

For some, living well suggests contentment and happiness. But it is also a potential prescription against atypical brain aging and diseases like dementia.

In a new paper published in Nature Aging, researchers find that managing negative emotions could protect the brain from harm in old age.

The finding comes as part of the effort to understand why negative emotions, such as persistent stress and anxiety, are seemingly risk factors for neurodegenerative conditions like dementia — and what can be done to stop this outcome.

“The health of the elderly is an increasingly important public health issue with the aging of the population,” co-author Patrik Vuilleumier, a neurologist and professor at the University of Geneva, explains to Inverse. “It is important not only to live long but even more so, to live in good physical and mental health.”

Most research so far on aging and the brain has focused on cognitive functions, says Vuilleumier, like memory, attention, and motor skills. Emotions, meanwhile, “have been relatively neglected,” he says.

Yet we know emotions influence physical and psychological health. Still, scientists aren’t quite sure how the brain switches from one emotion to another or if emotions and their effects on our body change as we age — including what the consequences of not managing negative emotions might be on our long-term health.

The effect of emotions on the brain

A cross-sectional scan of the human brain.

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In an effort to answer these questions, Vuilleumier and his colleagues evaluated whether the brains of older people (over 65 years old) react to negative emotions in similar ways to those of younger people (about 25 years old). They studied participants’ ability to regulate their emotions after seeing video clips showing people in a state of emotional suffering. During the experiment, the scientists measured the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The results suggest older people’s brains are more likely to show emotional inertia, which means the degree to which one’s emotional state is resistant to change. In an earlier study, the same team found that negative emotions activate certain brain regions and the brain can remain altered long after those emotions are triggered. The duration depends on the regulation capacities of each individual, Vuilleumier explains.

“We uncovered that, in general, negative emotions can trigger changes in the communication between different brain regions and these changes were found to persist longer in older subjects,” he says.

This was especially obvious when examining the connections between the amygdala and the posterior singular cortex, which are both parts of the brain that help regulate emotion and encode memories.

Changes in brain connectivity were even more pronounced in older adults who also reported experiencing more anxiety, rumination, and negative emotions. It’s possible that these conditions may amp up the emotional inertia seen in the study.

Emotional inertia and disease

Mindfulness meditation may be helpful in combatting neurodegeneration.

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The team is still analyzing the results to see if prolonged emotional inertia actually represents an increased risk for degenerative diseases like dementia. The plan is to follow the participants over several years and see what changes. Some observational studies do suggest that poor emotion regulation is linked to frequent age-related neurodegenerative conditions, though.

It’s possible that — before the onset of symptoms that affect cognitive skills — neurodegenerative diseases harm our ability to regulate emotions. Or it’s also possible that an inability to regulate emotions increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

More research is needed to really know for sure. Until then, the study hints that some actions related to emotions could limit the risk of neurodegeneration. The research team is currently conducting another study in which they’re evaluating the effects of two types of meditation — mindfulness and compassionate meditation.

“Meditation of other related behavioral methods could be used in a preventative way,” Vuilleumier. And it could be especially helpful for anxious people.

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