Brain Adjusts to Cope With Life's Upsets

Study finds older women show less reaction to upsetting images

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By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 16 (HealthDay News) -- New evidence suggests that the brains of older women process negative images differently than young women, a sign that the human brain seems to learn to cope with the slings and arrows of life.

"Older adults seem to be able to show a reduced response to negative emotions," said Roberto Cabeza, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

Researchers have long suspected that the brains of older people deal with emotions differently, Cabeza said. "There have been reports that there's a shift in the bias, perhaps an attenuation of negative emotions and an emphasis on processing positive emotions," he said.

For the new study, Cabeza and his colleagues put those theories about brain activity to the test in 15 young women (average age 25) and 15 older women (average age 70). All the women were healthy.

The women were shown photos chosen to elicit positive, neutral and negative responses. Later, the women took part in a test designed to reveal which photos they remembered. The researchers also scanned the brains of the women using fMRI technology, which measures neural activity.

While both groups of women were more likely to remember negative images, the older ones remembered fewer of them than the young women, Cabeza said. Older female brains also showed less activity between different neural areas.

The results "fit in with the theory that older adults are down-regulating or somehow suppressing a processing of negative information," he said, perhaps in response to "adapting" to the demands of life. "They may try to emphasize positive information and process less negative information," he added.

Why would older people do that? "They're having negatives like sickness and death of friends, relatives and spouses," Cabeza said. "It's possible that in this change and shift, by paying less attention and processing fewer negative events, we're protecting ourselves from these negative events."

In the larger picture, the findings, published online in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggest that the brain changes over time and doesn't simply go into decline as people age, he said.

Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida College of Medicine's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, is a neuroscientist who's familiar with the study findings. He said the brain rewires itself over time as people learn new things, and young people, of course, have had less time for that process to work.

"Younger people aren't experienced in the world, they haven't seen as many negative things in their lives," Sanberg said. "They haven't learned to cope with those things as much."

Sanberg noted that the new study only included women and said there could be a difference between the genders on this front. He said future research could look at middle-aged people and seek out signs that their reactions to images lie somewhere between those of young and old people.

More information

Learn more about the brain from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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