Volume 1251, Issue 1 p. 33-49

The emotion paradox in the aging brain

Mara Mather

Mara Mather

The USC Davis School of Gerontology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California

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First published: 12 March 2012
Citations: 222
Mara Mather, Ph.D., The USC Davis School of Gerontology, University of Southern California, 3715 McClintock Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90089. [email protected]


This paper reviews age differences in emotion processing and how they may relate to age-related changes in the brain. Compared with younger adults, older adults react less to negative situations, ignore irrelevant negative stimuli better, and remember relatively more positive than negative information. Older adults’ ability to insulate their thoughts and emotional reactions from negative situations is likely due to a number of factors, such as being less influenced by interoceptive cues, selecting different emotion regulation strategies, having less age-related decline in prefrontal regions associated with emotional control than in other prefrontal regions, and engaging in emotion regulation strategies as a default mode in their everyday lives. Healthy older adults’ avoidance of processing negative stimuli may contribute to their well-maintained emotional well-being. However, when cardiovascular disease leads to additional prefrontal white matter damage, older adults have fewer cognitive control mechanisms available to regulate their emotions, making them more vulnerable to depression. In general, although age-related changes in the brain help shape emotional experience, shifts in preferred strategies and goal priorities are also important influences.