But why would this be so?
How does a negative emotion actually lead to brain shrinkage? The answer may be inflammation. It lies behind every major disease and is the main driver of pain, redness and swelling although you can be in a state of inflammation without obviously knowing it. If you use pain-killers for anything then you are experiencing inflammation.
The word also has a psychological connotation of stress, anxiety and anger and, indeed, too many stress hormones have an effect on inflammatory markers. If a person is in an angry, hostile mindset much of the time, this is going to trigger inflammation in the brain and body. For example, a study showed that being stressed raised inflammatory markers more than being depressed, but the worst of all was being cynical. Cynicism illustrates a mental inflexibility, but parallels a gradual loss of physical flexibility, for example in arthritis, which is also a consequence of inflammation. Inflammation levels tend to increase with age and can certainly be argued to be one of the drivers of ageing, as illustrated by shorter telomere length.
The key to staying young is making healthy, new cells. This happens by copying the map of how to build that cell, which is contained in a package of DNA strands, called a chromosome. The chromosome divides in two, giving a new set of instructions to the new cell. At the end of the chromosome is something called a telomere, which is a bit like the hard bit at the end of a shoe lace. This becomes shorter with each cell copy, until it is too short and the DNA is no longer protected. This initiates rapid ageing because cells stop dividing, and hence replacing. Meanwhile, there is an enzyme, called telemorase, which can lengthen the telomere.
Many studies have found that a prolonged stress situation, such as caring for a sick child or parent with dementia, lessens telemorase activity and telomere length. So do childhood traumas, chronic depression and cynicism. Those with ‘hostile’ cynicism have shorter telomeres.
What can you do about it?
The roots of cynicism are usually fears such as of being controlled or ripped off. Love is letting go of fear, as Jerry Jampolsky said in his great book of that title. When I was studying psychology I asked if we would study love. That went down like a ton of lead balloons. I’m convinced that love is a major driver of health although there’s very little research on it. It seems more politically correct to research negative emotions than positive ones. Last week a study looked at the effects of romantic love, thinking lovingly of your partner, on blood glucose levels. Reflecting on your loved one was found to actually prevent blood sugar dips and, if anything, slightly raise it. This would fit in with the notion that the best way to lose weight is to fall in love.
I consider love to be a precise thing – an arc of recognition, of a shared consciousness, that occurs between two people (or your pet). There is a saying that ‘love is the proof that consciousness is shared.’ That is also the purpose of meditation – to get to the point of an expanded awareness and become aware that everything – thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations happen in awareness. Although there are few studies of love there are plenty of the effects of meditation. For example, one study on the effects of a mindfulness based meditation training showed a decrease in inflammatory markers and cortisol, the stress hormone. Also, there’s a good study that shows that meditation activates telemorase and is thus associated with longer telomeres.
Of course, persuading a hostile cynic that love, or meditation, is the/an answer is not an easy thing! One of my favourite books on meditation is Sally Kempton’s ‘ Meditation for the Love of it. Gerry Jampolsky’s Love is Letting Go of Fear is also a classic and perhaps a more practical starting point.
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