Managing your emotions may help prevent dementia

Getting a Handle on Your Emotions Could Prevent Dementia

Getting a Handle on Your Emotions Could Prevent Dementia

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Getting older ushers in physical changes we may not always like (we're looking at you, gray hairs and wrinkles!). However, for many of us, aging also brings wisdom and resilience. Youth and impulsive emotions tend to go hand in hand, but as we mature, we're usually better at processing and managing negative emotions; we're more likely to "let go" instead of holding on to disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak.

So what happens when, even as older adults, we struggle to release those dark feelings and embrace a positive outlook? A lot more than just emotional angst, apparently; a new study published in Nature Aging found that in older individuals, negative emotions caused changes in the connectivity between brain areas associated with emotions and Alzheimer's disease.

Emotion regulation and cognitive decline: What's the connection?

Not being able to "shake off" bad emotions had a negative impact on two brain areas crucial to memory and emotions, according to the University of Geneva study. How did it reach this conclusion? As younger and older adults watched videos depicting suffering, researchers collected brain images to assess how exposure to negative emotions impacted brain activity. The older adults (not younger) who continued to experience lingering negative emotions after the video viewing was complete showed a stronger connection between the posterior cingulate cortex, the area of the brain involved in self-esteem and autobiographical memories, and the amygdala, a brain area that's associated with processing emotional stimuli and tying emotional meaning to memories. This was particularly true among the subjects who reported anxiety and depression or depressive symptoms.

Ultimately, older adults already prone to ruminating over negative feelings had a strong connection between brain areas that are involved in processing emotions and memory. Neurodegeneration and alterations in the connectivity of the posterior cingulate cortex are common in Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. The results suggest that holding on to negative emotions may increase the risk of these diseases.

Do negative emotions cause Alzheimer's and dementia?

Is it a lack of emotional regulation ability and mental disorders such as depression that increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, or is it the other way around? More research is needed to find the answer to this question. A clinical study is underway to see the relationship between cognition, emotion processing and emotion-regulation interventions and their impact on mental health.

"These long-lasting carryover effects of emotions on activity and connectivity of limbic networks may provide an important neural marker of emotional regulation style and affective resilience," wrote the study's authors.

One important takeaway from this study is that we do ourselves a disservice by holding on to negative feelings and fixing symptoms rather than addressing the cause of mental diseases. The results also highlight how ancient Eastern mindfulness and meditation practices that aim at keeping the mind calm despite adversity can help improve depressive symptoms and emotional responses. Modern research has shown these practices have a long-term positive effect on cognitive health and function.

Why is emotional regulation important for your brain health?

As we've seen, a longer-lasting response to negative stimuli significantly impacts brain health and may increase the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. When we don't release negative emotions, it affects the brain's connectivity and function. This can cause a short-term problem—we all know holding a grudge isn't exactly good for friendships or marriages—and a lifelong threat not only to your mental health but to your brain function. When left unmanaged, mental and emotional distress (like depression and anxiety) can result in stress-induced neuroinflammation, silently wreaking havoc on neuronal connections and accelerating brain aging.

Where Do Emotions Occur in the Brain?

Your brain is a marvelous collection of neurons and other brain cells that interact with each other to help you experience and interact with the world around you. Still, there isn't one single area designated to regulate a specific process, be it eating, thinking, sleeping, or processing emotional experiences, both those positive emotions and the more worrisome ones. Some brain areas overlap and have multiple roles, like the frontal lobe, which is located behind your forehead and regulates complex mental activities, personality, social behavior and more.

But the two brain areas discussed in the study are the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. Both areas play a significant role in emotion processing.

  1. Posterior cingulate cortex:

    For simplicity, we'll call it the PCC. This part of the brain is part of the default mode network, or DMN for short, and it's active even at rest. Essentially, it's your brain's "default mode" when you're not focusing on anything. The PCC is thought to be involved in autobiographical memories or how you view yourself (like your self-esteem). Anomalies in this this part of the brain can lead to mental disorders tied to personality disorders.
  2. The amygdala:

    This is a small area in the brain (part of your limbic system) that processes emotional experiences, including fear and anger, and ties emotional meaning to memories. It's no surprise that amygdala issues also are linked to depressive disorders.

Of course, the PCC and amygdala do not act alone. While they may be most involved in handling emotion-related experiences, how you respond to the world around you is a team effort. An intrinsic and collaborative network of different neuronal pathways stream together different experiences (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) to help you experience life.

12 tips for managing your emotions

There's no surefire way to prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia, but self-care is important. Being proactive by prioritizing emotion processing and managing feelings is an excellent way to keep a healthy mind and prevent memory loss. Not sure how to get started? Here are 12 wellness hacks to help you cultivate self-awareness and support well-being.

1. Honor your emotions

As we grow up, many of us are conditioned to repress our feelings because "crying is for babies." Eventually, we learn to ignore and compartmentalize rather than face uncomfortable feelings; we put emotion processing on the back burner, so to speak. While keeping a firm upper lip might seem practical and "mature" when you're a teenager attempting to act like you don't care what anybody thinks, over time, repressing emotions can backfire. When we ignore how we feel, we're indirectly creating "emotional baggage," significantly impacting neuropsychological pathways (which regulate mood and decision-making skills) and overall well-being.

While the solution isn't, of course, to sob melodramatically in response to every perceived slight, you owe yourself honesty. Sometimes, the only way past negative emotions is through them. Acknowledging how you feel creates a (subconscious) safe space to face your emotional distress. In time, you'll develop the ability to process emotions healthily. Not only might this stave off depressive symptoms or other emotion-related issues, it also may help reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

2. Get enough quality sleep

It's no surprise that a lack of quality sleep negatively affects head-to-toe well-being, including brain health. There's a reason you snap at your teenager when you're tired; lack of restful sleep impairs emotional regulation. And to add insult to injury, negative thoughts and emotions contribute to a poor sleep cycle, which over time can contribute to cognitive impairment. Do you need eight hours of sleep to keep a calm mind? Everyone is different, but research suggests that getting at least six or seven hours of uninterrupted shuteye can significantly help improve well-being and even help reduce the risk of brain disorders like anxiety, depression and depressive symptoms, Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

3. Mind what you eat

Did you know you can eat your way to a healthy brain and even help prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia? Having balanced meals with nutrient-rich foods like plant-based foods, lean meats, healthy fats and low-fat dairy is a great way to ensure brain food is always on the menu. Additionally, choose nutrients that are known to support cognitive health, such as magnesium, cranberries, fish oil packed with those famous omega-3 fatty acids, sage, curcumin and l-theanine, a calming amino acid in green tea. On the other hand, limit or avoid high-calorie and nutrient-poor foods like refined, processed, high-saturated and sugary foods.

Get a complete list of brain-friendly foods from our Nutritional Neurohacking protocol.

4. Balanced gut, healthy mind

Your brain and gut are intricately connected. It's like a two-way highway where your microbiome (trillions of microorganisms that reside in your intestinal tract) can secrete chemical messengers that impact your mood and mental well-being; there's a reason worried thoughts can trigger a nervous stomach! Keep your mind calm and gut healthy by adding probiotic-rich foods to your meals.

5. Get regular exercise

Having a regular exercise routine is a no-brainer regarding emotion regulation strategies. Taking your emotional frustration out on that extra mile when you run or go to your Zumba class feels amazing. That's because you're releasing pent-up emotions and emotional distress. Emotions are a form of energy, when we ignore them, they stay stagnant and slowly accumulate—ready to burst out whenever our patience runs thin, we're hangry or frustrated.

6. Practice mindfulness

Ancient mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, have roots in Eastern teachings that promote calmness in the mind and body. Not a yogi? You don't need to be. Instead of following the whirlpool of stressful feelings, work on finding peace through emotion regulation, which ultimately means guiding your mind back to the present moment when you find yourself worrying about things that happened in the past or what might happen in the future. By getting in the practice of staying focused on the present, you learn to clear any distracting or anxious thoughts, develop mental resilience and establish coping mechanisms to stay calm and collected. Not only will it save you from ripping out your hair when times get tough, but incorporating mindfulness practices into your wellness routine is a proactive way to help reduce the risk of mental diseases like depression, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

7. Spend time in nature

We've said before, and we'll say it again: nature is medicine. The modern world may have us believe that we're separate entities from nature, but in truth, we need to nurture our connection to nature to feel our best, mentally and physically. There's no denying the calming effect the slow, wavy patterns on the lake's surface elicit within us or how the wind caressing our skin as it rustles tree leaves soothes our inner turmoil. Some research suggests that grounding or "earthing" yourself by walking barefoot on soft grass or feeling the sand between your toes may have a calming effect on neuropsychological pathways, which could potentially help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

8. Delegate and prioritize

The fast-paced, demanding modern world can keep us on edge and impact our day-to-day emotional experiences. When looming deadlines or house chores seem overwhelming, taking a step back and prioritize what needs your immediate attention rather than getting overwhelmed. Focus on dinner instead of laundry instead of trying to do both. Pro tip: Share the workload; ask your teenagers to help with the laundry or do the dishes; reach out to your team if you need help with meeting a deadline.

9. Keep a gratitude journal

It may seem to some like a frivolous hobby, but keeping a gratitude journal can help you hack or rewire your resting mindset—you know, your "default setting"—and help you embrace a more positive outlook and emotional resilience. Research suggests feelings of gratitude have both short-term and long-term benefits. The short-term benefits include finding daily things that make you smile and elicit positive emotions that you're grateful for—whether that's being happy from seeing your pooch sunbathing or having your favorite dessert after dinner, you know, simply enjoying the little things in life. The long-term benefits include a more flexible mind to uncertainty.

10. Cultivate healthy relationships

Spending time with loved ones and cultivating relationships that stimulate our noggins is strongly linked to slower cognitive decline, according to research. Enjoy a hearty meal with your partner, make time to laugh and catch up with friends you haven't spoken to in a while, go out to happy hour with your coworkers, or get into a friendly, heated discussion with your book club—all are terrific ways to maintain cognitive health.

11. Become goal directed

An idle mind is susceptible to depression, not to mention age-related cognitive decline, which may result in Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Research shows that having a sense of purpose is strongly linked to a reduced risk of multiple cognitive impairment outcomes, including mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Pro tip: If you can, postpone retirement to help keep your memory sharp and brain healthy.

12. Develop emotion regulation strategies

Finding a therapist to help you build emotion regulation strategies can be an excellent way to navigate mental disorders like anxiety and depression. That one-on-one session with a skilled, compassionate mental health expert can help you develop the ability to respond to change and uncertainty and learn to acknowledge and release negative feelings—instead of holding on to them.

Summary: Emotions and brain health

Let's recap: Experiencing emotional distress is a part of life. And how well we manage our emotions—whether we process and move on or ruminate and hold on to negative feelings—impacts our mental health, especially in late life. A new study published in Nature Aging found that older adults who ruminate or "hold on to" emotions and experience anxiety and depression symptoms have increased connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, two brain areas linked with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

In other words, how well we process stress and manage our mental state (getting treatment for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues) can benefit cognitive function, keeping our brain young. It can also help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. We can be proactive about brain health by dealing with rather than ignoring negative emotions and practicing mind-calming techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and other daily habits that support a brain-friendly lifestyle.



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