June 13, 2007
Negative Emotions Age The Brain
Don't worry, be happy.
ST. PAUL, MN- People who are easily distressed and have more negative emotions are more likely to develop memory problems than more easygoing people, according to a study published in the June 12, 2007, issue of Neurology®, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
In the study, those who most often experience negative emotions such as depression and anxiety were 40 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who were least prone to negative emotions. Mild cognitive impairment is a transitional stage between normal aging and dementia. People with mild cognitive impairment have mild memory or cognitive problems, but have no significant disability.
Researchers analyzed the results from two larger studies, the Religious Orders Study and the Memory and Aging Project, which involved 1,256 people with no cognitive impairment. During up to 12 years of follow-up, 482 people developed mild cognitive impairment. Participants were evaluated on their level of proneness to distress and negative emotions by rating their level of agreement with statements such as “I am not a worrier,” “I often feel tense and jittery,” and “I often get angry at the way people treat me.”
Some people are probably innate worriers. So maybe the insight that negative emotions age your brain is hard to act upon. Still, you can try to make life choices that are less likely to put you in positions where you have to worry. For example, avoid lots of debt. Also, don't get hooked up with a romantic attachment that will stress you out. Sometimes you know what is coming and you do it anyway (and I'm speaking from personal experience). Don't do that. Also, stressful job? Start looking for another one.
While there are plausible mechanisms by which negative emotions might result in increased aging, this is a clear case where the correlation may have an obvious alternate causation:
Loss of brain function can lead to negative emotions.
I've found that deliberately relaxing makes it easier to access memories. The habit of tension may impact memory without involving brain damage.
Critics of radical life extension, most prominently Kass, Callahan, and McKibbin have what I consider to be a very romantic concept of aging. They picture aging as affecting little more than physical appearance and present the image of the nice old man sitting in the rocking chair entertaining kids with stories from his youth. This is a very idealized, romantic image that most people do not experience when they get old. The reality is nastier. I think they romanticize aging because they are in basic denial of how nasty it is and they do not want to deal with it. What makes transhumanist such as ourselve unique is the fact that we prefer to deal with these problems straight on and implement positive solutions to eliminate these problems. In other words, we deal with reality. Bioethicists such as Kass, McKibbin, and the like are trying to avoid reality.
Politics often makes people unhappy--particularly radical brands of politics. Radical brands of religion likewise tends to make people unhappy. Hatred of others makes one unhappy. I see that a lot in my practice, with much hatred focused toward particular political leaders or groups of people. These haters are most unhappy, but as long as their insurance pays, I can pretend that I sympathize.
Are you kidding what about all those previous "studies" that showed the nervous nellies lived longer, grumpy patients have higher survival rates, etc. Now "It's all good" is the key to living right. Damn, have I pissed away my stinking life. I can think of a long list of famous long-lived curmudgeons. Just think how long they'd have lived if they'd have been happy!
I agree that Kass' crowd romanticizes aging. I also agree that the reality is pretty horrible. Old people lose control of their bladders and bowels, have hard times standing and walking, feel pains in joints. lose memories, experience increased depression, and suffer in countless other ways. There's nothing romantic about falling apart. There's nothing romantic about losing your mind.
Some people enjoy complaining and making the lives of others unhappy.