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Anger Tough on the Lungs

Over time, it can speed respiratory decline, researchers say

THURSDAY, Aug. 31, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- If anger is a problem, a new study advises that you calm down and literally save your breath.

That's because long-term hostility could damage lung function and speed up the natural decline in lung power that comes with age, investigators say.

"The findings are not unexpected," said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association. "There's lots of biological plausibility, lots of mechanisms by which this could take place."

The study was published in the Aug. 31 online edition of Thorax.

Hostility and anger have been strongly linked with many other health problems in older adults, including heart disease and asthma. These emotions also appear to have an impact on chronic airway obstruction, suggesting that they could also affect the lungs.

But there's been little specific research into how these types of psychological factors affect lung function decline.

"Our psychological colleagues have worked out quite well in the lab that psychological stress and distress and negative emotional states like hostility can disrupt immune function and trigger inflammatory processes, much like allergens in the environment," noted senior study author Dr. Rosalind Wright, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"Psychological stress seems to trigger similar types of biological disruptions," she said. "When you have something throwing the system out of balance, that might put you in a state of chronic inflammation."

To see if there was any link between anger and hostility and the way the lungs work, Wright and her colleagues examined at 670 men aged 45 to 86.

Levels of hostility, measured at the beginning of the study in 1986, averaged 18.5 points on a standard scale, with values ranging from seven to 37 points. Lung function appeared to decline as anger numbers rose, and vice-versa.

Over the next eight years, the researchers re-calculated the men's lung function three different times. Men who scored poorly in lung function at the beginning of the study were worse at each subsequent measurement, they said.

The association held steady even after adjusting for smoking, educational attainment and other factors.

How might anger be linked to lung function? That's not clear, but smoking's role was quickly discounted, Wright said.

"A person who tends to be more hostile might be more likely to adopt negative coping strategies, such as smoking," she said. "But that didn't seem to be the case. We controlled for smoking."

Men with higher levels of hostility also had a faster rate of natural decline in lung function, the researchers said.

Because all of the participants were older, white men, the results cannot be extrapolated to other groups. The results also can't be taken to mean that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between hostility and anger and declining lung function, simply an association, the researchers said.

The effect on the lungs was less than that attributable to smoking but was strong enough to approach that level of damage, Wright said. The exact magnitude of the effect needs to be studied further, she said.

The paper has a practical implication, Wright added. By spotting factors that predict a rapid decline in lung function, doctors and patients might be able to intervene to change things.

"If you raise someone's awareness about their emotional state or personality disposition or level of stress, they can modify their lifestyle or use interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy," Wright said.

More information

For more on your lungs, visit the American Lung Association.

SURCES: Rosalind Wright, M.D., assistant professor, medicine, Harvard Medical School, and assistant professor, society, human development and health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Norman Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer, American Lung Association; Aug. 31, 2006, Thorax
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