Good news for those approaching their twilight years: Research suggests that as we age, our brains start to tune out "negative stimuli," allowing us to focus on the more positive aspects of life.
In a study, published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science, participants were hooked up to fMRI machines as they viewed a series of photos—some upsetting (snakes, crashes, etc.) and some banal (plants, buildings etc.). They were then asked to recall and describe the photos they had just seen.
While both young and old participants remembered more negative photos than neutral ones, the fMRI scans showed that the older participants' brains were responding differently then the younger ones, possibly indicating stronger "emotional regulation" of the negative images. The older participants seemed to have developed a buffer of sorts against painful stimuli that was lacking in the younger participants.
"Emotional well-being seems to be one area where older adults actually show improvements rather than decline," says Peggy St. Jacques, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and one of the study's authors. St. Jacques adds that understanding how older adults process emotional events could have practical implications for helping those with afflictions such as geriatric depression and Alzheimer's disease.
This isn't the only research being done on the senior brain. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on several studies exploring why older people are more easily driven to distraction. These studies will become dramatically more important as Baby Boomers age, and more people over 60 will be looking to stay competitive with a young workforce.
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