Older folk cope better with distress

A NSW University study has found we get better at regulating our emotions as we get older

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INTERESTING FINDINGS: Researchers found that with increasing age participants were better able to positively reframe a negative experience into a positive one.

INTERESTING FINDINGS: Researchers found that with increasing age participants were better able to positively reframe a negative experience into a positive one.

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Ageing gratefully: Older people summon more positivity in response to distress

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It's an age-old question. Do we get better at regulating our emotions as we get older?

The answer is yes, according to a study conducted by UNSW psychologist Susanne Schweizer and colleagues from the University of Cambridge.

The study exposed 249 participants aged 18-88 to a series of film clips that ranged in emotional valence: positive (such as a laughing baby), neutral (such as a weather forecast), or negative (such as footage of the Rwandan genocide).

Participants were recruited from the CamCAN (The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience) sample, a balanced sample of the UK population expected to also represent the Australian population.

They were asked to simply watch the clips and allow any emotional response to arise naturally or, during half of the negative clips, actively reduce any unwanted or distressing negative emotions through a reframing of the negative content.

Afterwards, they were asked to record the magnitude of positive and negative responses on a scale and then, on a separate scale, report their perceived success at regulating their response.

Positive reaction

The researchers found that with increasing age, participants reacted more positively to both emotional and neutral stimuli and were better able to positively reframe a negative experience into a positive one.

"So we're seeing an increase in positive emotionality with age. 'Emotionality' is an individual's reaction to information, to emotional information... basically how we respond to our environment," Dr Schweizer said.

"Though the resting mood state of our older participants was more negative, participants were nonetheless able to extract more positivity from a given negative situation."

Researchers compared emotional response data gathered against existing brain-imaging data, recorded from a previous structural MRI study of the same participants.

"The differences in structural integrity that we observed, in older versus younger participants, related to cortical thickness," Dr Schweizer said.

"We found a reduction in volume with age across all brain regions we investigated. This very much fits with the findings from other studies into the ageing brain."

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