Aging and Emotions: How to Cope with Inevitable Feelings

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Just two hundred years ago, the world was pretty simple: people were born, grew up, created families, and grew older. Illnesses and external factors could intervene at any stage, so humanity wasn’t concerned with organizing a long and active life for aging. Today, medical advancements promise us long active years ahead, so it’s crucial to live those years happy and healthy.

Is there any difference in the emotional life of young and aging people? Do our hearts become more susceptible to sadness and joy with age? How do we maintain emotional, physical, and psychological health for many years? Let’s try to find answers to these and other questions.

Emotional self-regulation improves with age

Although aging can cause unwanted changes in physical and cognitive areas, people often start feeling more relaxed and balanced at the age of 60-70. Scientists have reached the same conclusions in the 2010 “Social and Emotional Aging“ report. It turns out that older people have a higher level of emotional well-being, with positive feelings prevailing over negative ones, while vivid emotions are softened. Scientists relate it to the more efficient management of resources. When people experience a natural decrease in cognitive abilities, they concentrate on the most important achievable goals, skipping the rest. The shorter perspective for planning and understanding one’s advantages and these advantages also play an important role.

The same model is applied to social interactions. Aging people concentrate on the most important relationships, building and developing them. This leads to feeling more joy and support in communication.

As paradoxical as it may sound, the slowdown of the brain and the vegetative system makes the aged more compassionate to the world, themselves, and the people around them. This happens due to the decrease in positive and negative emotional stimuli intensity. However, it is valid only with feelings of low to a moderate intensity as they react to intense stimuli as strongly as those younger. The effect is lost only in very old age, associated with accumulating a serious number of cognitive impairments.

Is broken heart syndrome real?

In medicine, there is a concept of cardiomyopathy or takotsubo, which is the myocardial fatigue that can be caused by emotional stress, for example, by the death of the close one. But from a social demography perspective, it turns out to be much more complicated. Research shows that the risk of death grows for various reasons after a spouse’s death. In the report “The effect of widowhood on mortality by the causes of death of both spouses,” scientists suggested several reasons.

The specifics of the traditional distribution of gender roles. Even if the close person’s death has not broken the heart of the other spouse on a physical level, it could undermine the established household order. Often, wives take care of their husbands (especially in the 75+ age category): remind them to take medicine, visit a doctor, and follow a proper diet. In the case of diabetes, even several weeks of wrong irregular diet can turn fatal. The social ties supported by the wife also break apart, and the widower remains alone, not possessing the skills to maintain relationships with friends and family. In turn, widows suffer financially since an abrupt decrease in the quality of life can lead to additional stress.

Cultural traditions

Scientists have discovered that the broken heart symptom is almost non-existent in the Afro-American community as widowed spouses often live with other relatives, which means they get more love and support.

Ignoring symptoms

People who have lived through grief tend to explain the chest pain by emotional feelings, exposing themselves to the risk of missing the symptoms of a heart attack. Scientists assume that the broken heart symptom can be avoided by prevention through training and conditioning the parasympathetic system during relaxation practices.

How to live through the loss of a close one

It is quite normal to feel grief after losing a close one, but sometimes, the feelings are too intense. That is why grief is so complicated. It can lead to depression or exacerbate an already existing disorder. The symptoms of complicated grief can include the following:

  • prolonged yearning for the deceased
  • inability to stop thinking about what has happened
  • difficulty in recognizing the loss
  • loss of the reason for living
  • prolonged and intensifying sorrow in the face of loss
  • problems with trust.

In these situations, taking care of yourself is essential as it would be a part of the healing process. Possible approaches include getting enough quality sleep, physical exercises, obtaining new habits, and turning for assistance to relatives and close ones. Turning to a psychologist or a support group also may help. Methods that work for one person may not help another, so finding a reliable support system is essential.

The special days — anniversaries or birthdays — should be spent with close ones who can help you feel better. You shouldn’t pretend that such a day doesn’t matter anymore as it’s just not the case. Devote it to the memory of your close one. If you feel that you cannot manage it (suffer from guilt, feel apathy and helplessness, don’t see a purpose in life, regret that you didn’t die), you should consult a doctor who can prescribe therapy and medical treatment, if necessary, to help you to cope with grief.

How to cope with loneliness

A person can be alone and not suffer from loneliness, but the reverse is also true. Sometimes, we all feel lonely, but this is not always a problem. At times, this is a temporary feeling caused by circumstances, and it can be controlled by active participation in social life and meeting new people.

However, in some cases, loneliness can be devastating. We are social creatures, so the lack of social ties can impact both emotional and physical health. The study “Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness” has shown that a person experiencing social deprivation can suffer from depression, personality disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, heart disorders, and even cancer. Here is what can help:

  • Participating in local volunteer programs — especially if these are dealing with assisting people of the same age.
  • Meeting new people in interest groups (mobile apps and social media may help).
  • Keeping and building relationships with close ones (video calls are more effective than messaging or telephone calls).
  • Participating in team sports.
  • Keeping pets, especially if you need to walk them outside.
  • Turning to support service on the phone or on the web.
  • If loneliness is caused by chronic disease, finding people with the same diagnosis on social media may help.
  • Part-time work.

The research “Loneliness Declines Across Birth Cohorts: The Impact of Mastery and Self-Efficacy” has shown that the aged people who felt they could control their lives, found themselves less lonely. They benefitted from a positive mindset and following personal goals (for example, visiting a gym).

How to cope with the fear of death

Most people fear death to varying degrees, but the intensity of fear and its endpoint vary from person to person. All-in-all, the fear of death is quite normal. It makes us more cautious, forces us to use safety belts in a car, and makes us try to do more activities. Here is what may help:

  • Discuss your feelings with friends and close ones. This should be someone you can fully trust.
  • Live a full life. We have a very limited time and shouldn’t spend it on fear.
  • Develop positive thinking. The study “Optimism and Healthy Aging in Women and Men” has shown that optimism helps people live longer and have a lower risk of chronic disorders.
  • Review your life values. If the fear is based on the expectation of punishment after death, one could benefit from turning to one’s own basic moral principles.
  • Changing the attitude to death. Viewing death as a part of the lifecycle can help concentrate on what you can achieve and the impact you can make.

Sometimes, the problem lies in irrational fear, known as thanatophobia. In this case, it is advised to turn for help from a doctor.

Things you can do to feel better in older age?

  • Physical Activity

Regular physical exercises considerably decrease the risk of developing numerous disorders, including heart disease and cancer, as shown in the 2019 report “Physical Activity, All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality, and Cardiovascular Disease.“ Being active helps to say mobile, decreases death rate and stress level, improves sleep, skin, and bones, and elevates mood.

Adults are advised to exercise 150-300 minutes per week at moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes with high intensity (the more, the better). Scientists recommend not limiting yourself to light exercises, such as walking, swimming, or dancing, and include endurance and resistance exercises in your workout. The research “Differential effects of endurance, interval, and resistance training on telomerase activity and telomere length in a randomized, controlled study” has shown that even one hour of working with weights in a gym helps to decrease the risk of heart failure or stroke by 40-70%. It also helps to strengthen the bones and physical function of aged people. Meanwhile, resistance workouts help to decrease (or even reverse) the aging of cells.

Middle-aged and senior adults should also not forget about balance training, which decreases the risk of falls, injuries, and the following immobilization. But on the whole, any physical activity positively affects longevity and quality of life, as was shown in the study from 2017, “Physical Inactivity, Sedentary Behavior and Chronic Diseases,“ which means that you can safely take a walk. 

  • Having a proper diet

A healthy diet can also be considered a basis for longevity. Numerous studies – for example, “What do review papers conclude about food and dietary patterns?“ – have shown that regular consumption of the following products leads to a lower risk of developing chronic disorders:

  • fruits and vegetables — fresh ones, frozen or canned
  • low-fat protein, for example, fish, nuts, beans
  • Whole grain wheat and cereals
  • low-fat dairy products, including milk, yogurt, or cheese,
  • healthy vegetable fats.

Meanwhile, it is advised to avoid consuming ultra-processed products, refined sugar, and unhealthy fats (also cutting consumption of red meat). It is vital to control salt intake to keep a healthy blood pressure level.

  • Quitting smoking and alcohol

Smoking and alcohol consumption lead to early aging and increase the risk of developing diseases, which will undoubtedly have a negative effect on how we feel in older age. Besides, as demonstrated in the report of 2017, “An overview of alcohol and tobacco/nicotine interactions in the human laboratory,” these habits reinforce each other.

  • Decreasing stress levels

The consequences of stress for your body are enormous, starting from the early aging of cells and ending with a higher risk of heart diseases. The research “State of the Art Review: Depression, Stress, Anxiety, and Cardiovascular Disease“ also demonstrates the negative impact of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Practicing awareness, socializing with friends, and getting enough sleep also help.

  • Practicing awareness

Awareness means acceptance, living here and now, and focusing on the present moment. Practicing awareness provides us with many tangible benefits, including improvement of memory, decreasing stress levels, improving immunity, and even decreasing blood pressure, as was shown in the report of 2019 “Benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing blood pressure and stress in patients with arterial hypertension.“ Practicing awareness is facilitated by meditation, yoga, and tai chi.

  • Care for mental health

Happiness and low stress levels are essential for comfortable living in the golden years. Here is what can help to keep the mood high:

  • Full night’s sleep

Quality sleep is essential for physical and mental health, so it is recommended to have no less than 7-8 hours of sleep each night. According to the report “Sleep Deprivation,“ lack of sleep leads to an increased risk of developing chronic disorders and dangerous states, which include:

  • increased risk of heart disorders and blood stroke,
  • a higher level of stress and depression,
  • increased risk of obesity,
  • increase in the number of inflammation markers,
  • decreased focus and concentration.
  • Finding new occupations

The interest in new and important occupations helps older people maintain a sense of purpose and stay occupied throughout their lifetime. The studies show that those involved in a hobby, exciting occupations and social activities feel happier, are less prone to depression, and live longer. The volunteer work is incredibly helpful. It turns out that when we support other people, our body decreases the negative stress effects, as shown in the research “Giving support to others reduces sympathetic nervous system-related responses to stress.”

  • Regularly visiting doctors

Systematic medical examinations help identify problems early, or before they arise, so you should not skip medical screening tests.

Even though aging is inevitable, it’s not always easy to accept age-related changes. Meanwhile, a healthy lifestyle, ties with close people, and favorite occupations help to manage grief and stress, which may arise over the years.

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