Negative emotions such as depression and anxiety are thought to promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. The rising number of aged individuals in the population is a global demographic trend. Ageing-related diseases are becoming more prevalent, and the associated healthcare costs have a substantial economic impact in all countries.
Our understanding of the mechanisms behind ageing has dramatically advanced due to these changes. The mechanisms of cellular ageing at protein, generic, and organelle levels are becoming more apparent, as are some of the more complex associations between ageing and the environment.
What is Emotional Inertia?
Some neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) observed the activation of young and older adults’ brains when confronted with others’ psychological suffering. They found that the neuronal connections of older adults show significant emotional inertia. This means that negative emotions excessively modify older adults’ brains, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. These two brain regions are intensely involved in managing emotions and autobiographical memory.
Role of Posterior Cingulate Cortex and Amygdala
The posterior cingulate cortex is a highly connected region and one of the most metabolically active areas of the brain. It plays a vital role in supporting internally-directed cognition. The amygdala is the brain’s central processing unit for frightening and threatening stimuli. It is also in charge of processing solid emotions like anger and pleasure, as well as threat detection and activating fear-related behaviours in response to dangerous stimuli.
Empathy and Aging
Some older people tend to cope with and regulate their emotions better than younger people. They can focus on the positive aspects even during an adverse event. However, the changes in connection between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala could indicate a deviation from the normal ageing phenomenon, prominent in people who show more anxiety, negative emotions, and rumination.
The posterior cingulate cortex is the region of the brain that is most affected by dementia, which suggests that the presence of these symptoms could increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The mechanism of emotional inertia about ageing is explained by the fact that these people’s brains remain frozen in a negative state by relating the suffering of others to their own emotional memories.
All Brains aren’t Created Equal
Neuroscientists experimented with studying the brain’s activity in young and older adults. The scientists showed volunteers a short video clip showing people in a state of emotional distress, such as during a natural disaster or an emergency, and videos with normal emotional content to observe the brain’s activity using a functional MRI.
Firstly, they compared a group of 27 people over the age of 65 with a group of 29 people around the age of 25. The same experiment was then performed with 127 older adults. The scientists observed that older people showed a different brain activity and connectivity pattern than younger people. This was particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network. It is a brain network that is highly activated at rest, and its activity is often disrupted by anxiety and depression, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions.
In older adults, the posterior cingulate cortex, which is part of this network showed increased connections with the amygdala.
How to Regulate Your Emotions?
Emotional regulation is a process by which you can influence your emotions when you have them and how you experience and express your feelings. It can be controlled or automatic, conscious or unconscious, and may affect the emotion-producing process at more than one point.
Emotional regulation encompasses positive and negative feelings, along with how we can strengthen and cope with and control them. Here are some of the ways that can help you cultivate emotional regulation:
- cognitive reappraisal
- accepting the emotion
- practising mindfulness
Strategies to Overcome Negative Emotions
Pathological ageing can be prevented by managing our emotions in a better way. This means that we should be aware of how our minds respond to challenging situations, understand what triggers us emotionally, learn how to regulate our emotional responses, and find coping mechanisms for our stressors. Awareness of our emotions will help us take steps toward preventing any damage caused by negative feelings.
There are specific strategies that you can use to manage your anxiety and depression more effectively, such as:
- talking with a counsellor or therapist
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- meditation practices
These strategies will help you become more self-aware, understand the reason behind your feelings, and learn better ways to cope with your anxiety or depression instead of letting it destroy your physical and mental health.
Pathological ageing and neurodegenerative diseases are interconnected with each other. However, these diseases can be prevented through better management of negative emotions. The negative emotions promote the onset of dementia and neurodegenerative diseases. Such harmful effects on the brain can be limited by managing emotions in a better way.