Sunday, August 21, 2016

Ramamurti - Does Emotionality influence human longevity

Hon.Director (Emeritus), CEFRA, Dept. of Psychology,
S.V.University, Tirupati-517 502.
For long, the Scientist and the common man alike, have shown a keen interest, in prolonging human life.  The multidisciplinary science of Gerontology, has put in, a significant effort, in the last five decades, to enhance healthy longevity.  Several models of longevity have been proposed, that enumerate the contributory factors.  The model of longevity, developed as part of “The Tirupati Centenarian Study” is one of them, that is relevant to the Indian context.  It could be seen in the model, that, apart from the genetic influences, the cumulative effects of a dynamic set of idiopathic factors on the person, as one passes through the life span, contribute to the longevity of the person (Ramamurti, 1997, The Longevity Model – The Tirupati Centenarian Study).  Among them, the physical and mental stresses that result from (negative) emotional experiences and the manner of coping to them , are significant contributory factors.  Longevity, in effect, is the weighted regression of these factors.
A search of psychological literature shows, that there are a considerable number of studies, that highlight the unhealthy impact of negative emotional stress on the person.  Selye’s (1957) work on stress is a pioneering contribution and Walter B Cannon’s 1914 and 1927 articles constituted a seminal research on the impact of emotions (the medullary - adrenal link).  The myriad scientific investigations that followed over the years (some using fMRI and PET scans) have laid bare , in whopping detail, the impact of emotions on the psycho physiological processes in the brain and body of the individual.  It is becoming increasingly clear, that we as gerontologists  need to give significant attention to these findings.  This is all the more so, because none can be totally free of the emotional experiences in their daily lives.  The emotions intricately influence “healthy ageing”, the motto of W.H.O.
There are two axes through which emotions act on the body system.  They are, as you may know (a) The sympathetic-Adrenal-medullary axis (SAM) and (b) The Hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal axis (HPA).  They could be, I believe, not only sensori initiated, but also thought initiated.  Both ultimately activate the adrenal hormones (epinephrine (EPI) and Norepinephrine-NE).  The fight or flight response to emotion provoking stimuli is initiated through these axes.  The SAM axis involves the sympathetic branch of the Autonomic nervous system.  The SAM axis activation is the body’s primary physiological response to acute stressor stimuli, Norepinephrine (NE) slows digestion, increases plasma glucose and dilates pupils while epinephrine (EPI) increases heart rate, cardiac contractility, relaxes smooth muscles, increases blood pressure and glucose release. EPI levels depend on the severity of stresses (emotional) and may rise to several times the resting levels.  It is to be noted that frequent emotional experiences of a negative character may become chronic.  Ultimately, they cause tissue damage.  It has been reported that these chronic stressor initiated effects are similar to age related (ageing) changes (Bosch et al., 1998, Chida &Fristamer, 2008, Jackel et al., 2010).  In a similar fashion, the HPA axis activation during emotional experiences has detrimental effects on health. Prolonged exposure to emotional experiences may lead to cortisol elevation which in turn may cause several health problems.  These effects have been reported to be similar to changes seen in the ageing process.
In addition to the aforementioned impact of emotional experience through the SAM and HPA axex, they have an effect on the immune system, both innate immunity and also the adaptive immunity.  Chronic negative emotional experiences may lead to lowered immunity (B lymphocyte) concentrations. The adaptive response of the immune system wears out.    
The foregoing brief discussion - on the effects of bad emotions on the mind and body through SAM and HPA axes and the down regulation of immune response -highlights the fact that bad emotions are to be prevented.  Though the body adapts to acute emotional stress, it can only be temporary.  As the allostatic (short term adaptation) load increases it leads to a wearing down of bodily systems, to oxidative stress and tissue damage and increased susceptibility to infections.  They exacerbate age related changes and hasten them.  As these effects cumulate over the growing years, the aging trajectory gets punctuated with more ailments, more elongated co-morbidity , and ultimately leading to earlier mortality.  Thus, there is  growing evidence to establish the link between increased negative emotionality and unhealthy and shortened  longevity.
Negative emotions in life are triggered by threats to the psychological self, leading to the flight or fight response.  No doubt, they depend on the sensitivity of the individual to react to these threats. These threats need not always be real but could be “phenomenal”, subjective or just developing from an imaginary build up.  The root cause of these negative emotional experiences can be largely traced to the unique subjective perception of damage to the self of the individual concerned. Therefore, attempts to reduce the negative emotional experiences would do well to try to systematically desensitize the individual to the subjective perceptions of threat to the self.  Child rearing in the early formative years would play an important role in blunting this sensitivity and building better tolerance to threats to the psychological self (eg. through Sensitivity training).The profiles of centenarians in the Tirupati centenarian study showed that the centenarians too had stressful life experiences , but they coped with the emotional stress in a better manner using cognitive based rather than emotion based strategies  A cognitive based response to provocation could  replace an emotionally charged response of coping to threat.  Techniques such as distraction, meditation and relaxation should be handy to tackle build up of emotional stress.  Successful training in developing strategies in problem solving and decision making could help in meeting a variety of threatening situations.  
On the other hand, the encouragement to seek and experience the pleasant emotions should be a part of familial and educational training.  An active training in the practice of positive .thinking, would go a long way, in reducing negative –thought-based emotions.  The creation and maintenance of a positive mind set in people is becoming a necessity. It has  social benefits too.  Methods of channelizing the emotional energies  through positive self expression like art, participation in hobbies, creative thinking, laughter, singing, dancing, reading humour and the like are the many ways of countering the negative mindset by a positive mindset and tilting the balance – favourably.
In essence, the foregoing discussion has attempted to highlight the bad impact of negative emotions on the psycho physiological processes in the individual, causing morbidity. Prolonged emotional stress does influence longevity. It is necessary to learn and use a variety of preventive strategies to desensitize the individual to negative - emotion - triggering stimuli and perception of real or imaginary threats to the “self”.  On the plus side, building a positive mindset and indulging in pleasant self expression would keep the mind at peace.  After all, it is the mind that makes the man and hence the mindset needs to be effectively conditioned to maintain a positive balance, resulting in lesser need to activate the SAM or the HPA axes to stimulate the adrenals.  Such a life plan would greatly reduce the bad impact of negative emotions on the body and mind, thereby reducing morbidity and prolonging healthy longevity.        

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