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.
But even though being sad won’t stop the progression of Alzheimer’s or bring back a spouse, either, it can serve a purpose. While constant or inexplicable sadness can be the sign of a larger issue, like depression or loneliness, Wrosch says acute sadness is often a more appropriate reaction to late-in-life problems and may kickstart healthy grieving and healing. “Sadness may actually start the recovery process and help the person accept it,” he says. “It may also help recruit some social support from others to then help [them] cope with it.”