Managing Emotions Better Could Prevent Pathological Aging

A new study indicates that better management of negative emotions using techniques such as meditation could help limit neurodegeneration.

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, affect millions of people worldwide. They occur when nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system lose function over time and ultimately die.

In the study, findings of which will soon be published in the journal Nature Aging, the participants were shown short videos with people in a state of emotional suffering, for example, during a natural disaster or distress situation, and clips with neutral emotional content. Their brain activity was observed using functional MRI.

In the first experiment, researchers compared a group consisting of 27 people aged 65 and older with a group of 29 people around 25 years old. The researchers then repeated the same experiment with 127 older adults.

Researchers found differences in a pattern of brain activity and connectivity between older and younger people. The difference was most noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network.

This is a brain network that is highly activated in a resting state, and the activity of which is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions.

“In the older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with rumination, or with negative thoughts,’’ says Sebastian Baez Lugo, a researcher in Patrik Vuilleumier’s laboratory and the first author of this work.

Researchers say that changes in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala may indicate a deviation from the normal aging phenomenon, especially in people who experience more anxiety, rumination, and negative emotions.

As the posterior cingulate cortex is one of the regions most affected by dementia, the study suggests that the presence of these symptoms could increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

Dementia is not a specific disease but a broad term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities, and it is not a normal part of aging. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

The authors, however, say that it remains unclear whether poor emotional regulation and anxiety increase the risk of dementia or the other way around.

“Our hypothesis is that more anxious people would have no or less capacity for emotional distancing. The mechanism of emotional inertia in the context of aging would then be explained by the fact that the brain of these people remains ‘frozen’ in a negative state by relating the suffering of others to their own emotional memories,” says Sebastian Baez Lugo.

How to regulate your emotions?

Emotion regulation refers to a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. People unconsciously use emotion regulation strategies, but not all techniques are healthy.

Healthy strategies do not cause harm and can help to diffuse strong emotions. They may include talking with friends, exercising, writing a journal, meditation, therapy, getting adequate sleep, recognizing your emotions, and taking breaks when needed.

Unhealthy strategies are the ones that may result in long-term consequences and may include:

  • Abusing alcohol or other substances
  • Self-Injury
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from difficult situations
  • Physical or verbal aggression
  • Excessive social media use, to the exclusion of other responsibilities

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