Science: Happy Older Adults Less Likely to Dwell on Missed Chances

One of the keys to aging in an emotionally healthy way is to let go of regrets about missed opportunities, a new study suggests.

For the young, regret might help them make better decisions in the future. But the likelihood of second chances decreases with age, and the benefit of ruminating upon those chances probably disappears.

In search of a biological basis for this idea, Stefanie Brassen and colleagues at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, in Hamburg, Germany used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of three groups of people: young adults, depressed older adults, and healthy older adults. They report their results in the 19 April edition of ScienceExpress.

Playing a computer game, the volunteers opened a series of boxes, containing either money or a cartoon picture of a devil that ended the exercise and caused the players to lose all the money they had won thus far. After opening each box, the players could decide whether to proceed to the next box or to stop and collect their winnings. After the round ended, all the boxes opened, showing how far the players could have safely continued.

Discovering that they had missed chances to collect more money made the young adults and the depressed older adults take more risks in subsequent rounds. But it didn’t really change the behavior of the healthy older adults. Likewise, activity in a brain region called the ventral striatum, which is involved in feeling regret, and in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with emotion regulation, was similar between the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults showed a different brain-activity pattern, suggesting that they were experiencing less regret and regulating their emotions more effectively.

Consistent with these experiments, the researchers also observed changes in “autonomic activity”—namely, skin conductance and heart rate—in depressed older adults but not in healthy older adults. The depressed adults experienced a lower heart rate, for example, when confronted with missed opportunities in the computer game.

Brassen and colleagues propose that healthy older adults may use helpful mental strategies, like reminding themselves that the results were up to chance, whereas depressed older adults may blame themselves for the outcome. The authors further speculate that training people to use these mental strategies might help preserve emotional health in old age.

Read the abstract, “Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging,” by Stefanie Brassen and colleagues.