Could our ability to manage emotions potentially prevent pathological aging and neurodegenerative diseases? According to recent research, it just might. Negative emotions, anxiety, and depression are believed to trigger the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. The University of Geneva’s neuroscientists have observed that managing these emotions more effectively might mitigate the detrimental effects on the brain.
Emotional Regulation and the Aging Brain
Studies conducted at the University of Geneva explored how young and older adults’ brains responded when exposed to the psychological suffering of others. The findings revealed that the older adults exhibited significant emotional inertia, with negative emotions altering neuronal connections excessively and over extended periods.
Two brain regions, the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, both of which play key roles in managing emotions and autobiographical memory, showed particular sensitivity. These findings imply that managing emotions better – possibly through methods like meditation – could limit neurodegeneration.
The Emotional Landscape of the Brain
Over the last two decades, neuroscientists have focused on understanding how the brain reacts to emotions. Key questions include understanding how the brain transitions from one emotional state to another, how emotional variability changes with age, and the consequences of mismanaging emotions on the brain.
Past studies in psychology revealed that the ability to transition between emotional states quickly is beneficial for mental health. Conversely, those unable to regulate their emotions and remain in a singular emotional state for extended periods are at higher risk of developing depression.
Emotional Resilience and Aging
The research involved showing volunteers short TV clips portraying people in states of emotional suffering, as well as clips with neutral emotional content. The team analyzed brain activity through functional MRI, comparing a group of 27 individuals over 65 years old with a group of 29 individuals around 25 years old. The experiment was later repeated with 127 older adults.
Results revealed that older adults generally displayed different brain activity and connectivity patterns compared to younger individuals. Notably, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, showed increased connections with the amygdala, responsible for processing essential emotional stimuli. These connections were stronger in subjects with higher anxiety scores and negative thoughts.
Pathological Aging: A Result of Emotional Mismanagement?
Interestingly, older people are typically better at regulating their emotions than younger individuals and can focus on positive details even during negative events. However, enhanced connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala could signal a deviation from normal aging, more pronounced in individuals exhibiting higher levels of anxiety, rumination, and negative emotions.
Yet, the cause and effect relationship remains unclear – does poor emotional regulation and anxiety increase the risk of dementia, or does the development of dementia lead to poor emotional regulation and anxiety?
Could Meditation be a Solution?
Could dementia be preventable by addressing emotional inertia? To answer this question, the research team is currently conducting an 18-month interventional study evaluating the effects of foreign language learning and meditation practice. They are comparing two types of meditation: mindfulness, which promotes focusing on one’s own feelings in the present, and compassionate meditation, aiming to actively increase positive emotions towards others.
The emerging evidence suggests that better emotional management could play a significant role in preventing pathological aging and neurodegeneration. As our understanding deepens, novel non-pharmacological interventions such as meditation may become mainstream in promoting healthier aging.
Baez-Lugo, S., Deza-Araujo, Y.I., Maradan, C. et al. Exposure to negative socio-emotional events induces sustained alteration of resting-state brain networks in older adults. Nat Aging 3, 105–120 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43587-022-00341-6