Grumpy Old Men? Not Likely!

Aging brains store fewer negative memories, study says

"You kids get off my lawn!"

Elderly individuals are often stereotyped as getting grumpier as they get older. However, a new study suggests this is hardly the case.

"It's just the opposite," said neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University, according to the Sun-Times. "People tend to be more contented as they get older."

In Cabeza's experiment, two adult groups (one in their 20s, one in their 70s) were shown a series of 30 photographs while their brain activity was monitored. Each of the photos was designed to evoke a positive, neutral, or negative response. Thirty minutes later, the participants were asked to recall these images.

Both groups reacted to the photos similarly, but there were vast differences in how they remembered them later. While older participants were able to remember just as many neutral images as their younger counterparts, they recalled far fewer of the negative images.

The results suggest that older adults are "somehow suppressing a processing of negative information," said Cabeza, via U.S. News and World Report. "They may try to emphasize positive information and process less negative information."

So why are older people more prone to a rosier outlook?

Brain scans showed that the older group was more likely to process the negative images in the frontal cortex, which handles higher thinking. The younger group used parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory.

There are different theories on why the brain develops this way.

Via ScienceDaily, Cabeza speculated, "Perhaps at different stages of life, there are different brain strategies. Younger adults might need to keep an accurate memory for both positive and negative information in the world. Older people dwell in a world with a lot of negatives [e.g., illnesses and deaths of friends and loved ones], so perhaps they have learned to reduce the impact of negative information and remember in a different way."

Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida College of Medicine's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, offers a related but different approach.

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

The study has been published online in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Science.

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