Mortality and Declines in Positive and Negative Emotions

Predictors of emotions in the time before death for older adults.

Posted Sep 09, 2018

Older adults enjoy better emotional well-being than younger and midlife adults.  They report fewer negative emotions relative to younger persons, such as less anger, irritability, and sadness.  They report the same or greater positive emotions.  Calm feelings - like serenity - are reported more by older than younger persons.  Furthermore, more activating emotions - like excitement - do not necessarily decrease with age.  

Thus, older adults are left with fewer negative and greater or equal numbers of positive emotions than younger adults.  

Recent research provides new insights into these data, which were once so surprising as to be called a “paradox of aging.”  That is, the beneficial outcomes of aging for emotional and mental health have limits. 

Oliver Schilling and colleagues recently published an exceptional analysis of emotion changes in older adults as their time to death approaches.  The study was published in the August edition of Psychology and Aging.  

Dr. Schilling and his colleagues followed a large number of older adults over time. There were frequent measures of health and emotion.  Mortality information was collected. The researchers knew that emotional well-being declines in the time shortly before death but there were a lot of unknowns. How do positive and negative emotions change in this critical time period?  What might be causing greater emotion distress?  

Results indicated that positive emotions declined and negative emotions increased in the time before death. Late life health declines were a direct cause of these emotion changes before death. In contrast, health problems that occurred earlier in life did not have a strong association with emotion changes in later life.  

Whereas these data are somewhat grim, the authors reported that reaching later life in better physical health is associated with better emotion well-being for a longer period of time. That is, if one is relatively healthy when entering late life, there is a better chance of preserving or maintaining emotional well-being for a longer period of time.   

I take two messages from this work.  First, strive to maximize health into later life.  It may serve protective for your emotional health.  Second, I join with Dr. Schilling and his colleagues who call for greater societal supports for older adults navigating the precarious final years of life. 

References

Schilling, O. K., Deeg, D. H., & Huisman, M. (2018). Affective well-being in the last years of life: The role of health decline. Psychology And Aging, 33(5), 739-753. doi:10.1037/pag0000279

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