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What might explain why aging brains get better at managing emotions?
Some neuroscientists believe that because we’re processing information a little slower with age, that makes us think before we act, instead of reacting quickly. We do see a decline with age in overall mass of the brain’s frontal lobe, the part that is responsible for emotion regulation, complex reasoning and speed of processing. But researchers such as Mara Mather at the University of Southern California find that older adults often exhibit greater prefrontal cortex activity than younger adults when processing emotions.
A lot of work has found that older people have a positive bias, even without realizing they’re actually doing this. Their default mode is, as we say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” We find that older people more often let go of a situation they experience as negative, especially with friends and family. So it is really picking their battles that we think older adults are better at. If you look at older adults who have cognitive decline, they are not defaulting to the positive.
Is there a certain age at which we reach a peak in emotional satisfaction?
It depends on what aspects you’re looking at, but the peak we see in terms of the highest positive and lowest negative emotions is between 55 and 70. Then there’s the measure of “life satisfaction,” which includes both happiness and sadness, as well as a cognitive evaluation of how your life is going. For that, we often see a little lower ratings in midlife, lowest among people who are in their early 50s, and then it goes up. So again, it’s higher with older age. Only after 75 do negative emotions start increasing again.
Susan Turk Charles speaks at this May 6, 2021 online event hosted by Knowable Magazine.
Yet even centenarians, you write in your review, report overall high levels of emotional well-being. I imagine that by this point, some people may start wondering whether it might just be that people who have more positive attitudes, or encounter less adversity, live longer.
It is true that people with satisfying relationships and positive emotions live longer. Researchers have looked at what could explain this, and they find that psychological well-being is consistently related to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and better cardiovascular health. Other researchers have modeled that, and they still see an age-related advantage.
So emotion regulation improves with age; we see this again and again. These are small effects, but they are consistent. We see improvement for the majority of people, but not for everyone. I don’t know the percentages, but let’s say you have 40 percent remaining stable, 40 percent going up and 20 percent going down, you’ll see people still going up on average.
What might explain why some people do not experience these improvements?