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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 23:25 GMT 00:25 UK
The brain gets 'mellow' with age
Copyright - Society for Neuroscience - 2006
Researchers measured responses to happiness (blue) and fear (red). Copyright - Society for Neuroscience . J. Neurosci. 2006;26:6422-6430
People become more "mellow" in response to negative emotions over their lifetime, research suggests.

A brain imaging study in individuals aged 12 to 79 found that emotional stability continues to improve, even into the seventh decade.

And older people were found to be less neurotic than teenagers.

The results published in the Journal of Neuroscience combat negative beliefs that brain function declines with age, say the Sydney University researchers.

A total of 242 healthy men and women were assessed for the study using emotional well-being questionnaires.

Neurotic traits were found to decrease with advancing age - with the 12 to 19 year age group being the most neurotic and the 50 to 79 year age group being the least neurotic.

Researchers then used MRI scanning and measurements of electrical activity to monitor brain responses while subjects viewed facial expressions of emotions.

When shown images of faces expressing emotion, younger age groups were significantly better at recognising fear but less accurate when it came to identifying happiness.

"Hopefully, these findings will begin to usher in a new and more positive understanding of the aging process"
Professor Helen Fisher, Rutgers University

Brain scans also showed that in older people the medial prefrontal area of the brain was more active when processing negative emotions than positive ones.

The results indicate that older people have better control over brain responses to negative emotions than younger people.

Emotional wellbeing

Writing in the journal, Dr Leanne Williams and colleagues at the Brain Dynamics Centre, Westmead Millennium Institute in Sydney, Australia concluded: "These findings provide new evidence that emotional wellbeing improves over seven decades of the human lifespan.

"We propose that life experience and changing motivational goals may drive plasticity in the medial prefrontal brain to increase selective control over the balance of negative and positive emotion."

They added that with predictions one in three people will be over age 60 by 2150, researchers should draw on positive changes in emotional brain function to help find interventions to address age-related decline in cognitive function.

Professor Helen Fisher, an expert in human emotion at Rutgers University in New Jersey said: "Hopefully, these findings will begin to usher in a new and more positive understanding of the aging process."

Dr Simon Surguladze, deputy head of the department of neuroscience and emotion at King's College London said the control over negative emotions in older people was likely to be an evolutionary trait.

"In my opinion people have acquired this over hundreds of years of evolution - so that in growing old, the brain selects positive reinforcement more easily to balance losses in life and mental health.

"The brains are adjusted so people are not going into depression - there is a balance in the control of emotion."

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