Hostile People Breathe Less Easily - UPDATED
> 8/6/2007 1:02:50 PM

We all know that yelling can be emotionally damaging, but a recent study suggests that the hostility behind outbursts could also physically harm your respiratory system. Dr. Benita Jackson et al. recently examined the information compiled for the Coronary Artery Risk Development in (Young) Adults study and found a clear pattern-- an inverse correlation between hostility and healthy pulmonary function.

Participants were put through a forced expiratory volume (FEV) test to find the maximum amount of air they could exhale in one second. When this FEV number was compared to their score from a 50-question hostility questionnaire, a graph showed that for every standard deviation above the mean in hostility, there was a .66% decrease in FEV.

The correlation here is clear, but the cause is still uncertain. Wisely, Dr. Jackson took the extra step to rule out some of the most likely confounding causes. Socioeconomic status, which has often been shown to create both emotional and physiological problems, was controlled for, as were some physical attributes like height and asthma. On the behavioral side, smoking was isolated to show that it was not the reason for the correlation. This leaves many other behaviors though that might be the real common factor. Perhaps drug abuse causes both hostility and pulmonary problems. Or perhaps it is something as simple as excessive shouting damaging the lungs.

Dr. Jackson spoke with us about unraveling the complex tangle of correlation. While admitting that further study is required, and that there could very well exist as-yet-unidentified behavioral differences creating the correlation, she expressed her belief that at least some of the pulmonary damage is done directly by changes that hostility causes in the body:

My own speculation is that in addition to behavioral factors that are influenced by hostility and could in turn reduce lung health--such as drug abuse or physical inactivity--chronic hostility itself also causes physiological changes.� These physiological changes, however small at any given time, probably accumulate and contribute directly to dysregulation such as inflammation or immune changes that are translated into poorer lung health over the years.�

There is an additional finding from this study that has caused some puzzlement. The correlation held for every ethnic and gender combination except white males. While there are certainly some genetic differences in the disease risks between sexes and races, this finding may also indicate that there are cultural reasons why hostile people have greater health problems. It is possible that hostility among white males, still the dominant group in America, does not receive as much stressful resistence, or that it stems from issues that that do not infuriate other groups. For example, hostility among minority groups might more often be the result of disatisfaction with living conditions that can affect health. Dr. Jackson agreed that social differences would be a good explanation for the distinct white male results. However, she pointed us to some of her previous research on older white men that shows hostility predicts accelerated lung function decline. This longitudinal study is valuable not only because it helps dispel the newest abnormal result by showing that all groups eventually suffer the effects of hostility, but also because it demonstrates that hostility measurements have the power to predict future decline in health.

Further research is required to determine whether hostile feelings directly cause physiological problems. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, as we have reported more than once on the damage emotions like stress can inflict on the body. Just this week, we reported that PTSD sufferers exhibited greater vascular, musculoskeletal and dermatologic problems. Chronic anger at the world may be just as unhealthy as prolonged stress. If you feel the urge to criticize this article, save your breath.

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