While the image of the crabby, ill-tempered senior, shaking their fist at neighborhood kids and shouting for them to get off the lawn, is a common ageist stereotype, there is truth in the statement that some changes in our later years can spark feelings of anger.
Most older adults have lived long enough and had enough different life experiences that emotions tend to level out with age. In fact, research has reported that most older adults tend to have developed coping skills over the years that keep them on an even keel, making them less likely to “sweat the small stuff.” Still, some of the unique challenges of aging can raise hackles and stir up some ire. Giving up daily activities like driving, or facing other issues with mobility or competence in the daily activities of living can threaten self-esteem and provoke defensive behavior. Seniors might face undue ageism or a lack of respect. And health conditions that cause chronic pain or other ongoing issues can exacerbate anger and make someone quick to react. Frustrations never fully go away if left undealt with, and even minor annoyances can build up over time and the next thing you know, an older adult is having a sudden outburst at something on the tv, or some behavior by a stranger in public or even a loved one.
Negative emotions like sadness, anger, and others are, of course, natural and a part of everyday life and being human, but too much of them too often can be a bad thing, both for ourselves and for the people around us that we love. A study performed by the American Psychological Association showed that, over time, frequent feelings of anger and other negative emotions in older adults actually harmed the bodily health of them. Anger causes the body to release the hormones that activate the “fight or flight” response, which increases inflammation and raises the risk of chronic illness. And the effect is more pronounced the older we get.
Other studies have confirmed even more effects of anger on health as well. A 2022 study in Germany found that older men who feel anger tend to perceive other people as more angry in general, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle. And even worse, those seniors tended to have higher blood pressure than their more relaxed counterparts. Another study showed that feelings of anger can raise the risk of a stroke by 30% for the next hour. And patients with heart disease who reported having felt anger performed more poorly on tests of heart function. Excess anger has even been linked to dementia.
The first step if you or an older loved one has been experiencing anger is a visit to the doctor. It could be caused by an as yet undiagnosed health problem. Some prescription drugs can cause mood swings and make emotions less stable. It is also helpful to look at your life and identify what may be causing stress on you. For example, a common sore spot for seniors is loss of independence. Thinking about steps you can take to reassert it, for example hiring a caregiver or home health aide.