The Ups and Downs of Aging: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Living Well

The human body has an expiration date. We all age and will all die. A variety of changes occur in both the body and brain as we age and neuroscience research is just beginning to study the latter process.     

Aging, financial decision making, & dopamine

In American society (and most of the rest of the world), aging is often viewed as a negative process (though perceptions of the consequences of aging differ based on age of respondents). Older people are less agile and slower to process information. Indeed, performance on a variety of cognitive tasks declines with age (see here). And changes in information processing speed and memory processes are thought to underlie a variety of decision making behaviors in older adults, particularly financial.

Financial decision-making behavior shown to vary with age:

1)    Older adults are more likely to borrow money at higher interest rates

2)    Older adults demonstrate lower investment skill as measured by rate of return

Much of the age-related changes in financial decision making are thought be related to declines in brain dopamine levels with aging, which is estimated to decline between <1% and 15%+ per decade, depending on the area of the brain studied. While dopamine is thought of as the brain’s “reward” signal it is tied to a variety of valuation and learning processes as well. 

An aging world and how to age well

Breakthroughs in medical treatment have resulted in a worldwide population living longer and a graying of the population across much of the world. The global senior (aged 65 or older) population is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2050 and double its representative share of the worldwide population from 8% in 2010 to 16% by 2050.

As our population ages and we grapple with this effect on our various societal, federal support, and financial systems, one is left wondering: how can we ensure we age well?

Much work has sought to identify the key factors of “successful aging” or “aging well” (see here, here, and here).

Physical activity and cognitive engagement have been shown to limit cognitive decline, at least in the short-run (1 year follow up). Furthermore, lifetime cognitive activity and current physical activity have been associated with better brain health, including less beta-amyloid burden, a key metric associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Physical activity may help to slow normal brain aging and boost longevity. Work from my research colleagues has demonstrated that older adults showing greater physical activity had less age-related decline in dopamine levels in a portion of the brain thought to be critical in reward processing and decision making. Note that this study was cross-sectional (meaning we looked at age-related decline at the group level and did not follow individuals over time to look at their own age-related changes in our measures). 

So, get out there and get those steps in – it is good for your aging brain!

Increased positivity with aging

Interestingly, positivity increases with aging (see here, here, and here) and older people attend to and remember the past more positively than younger people (see here and here). This phenomenon has even been given a name: the Positivity Effect.

Positivity has a major effect on older adult health. Across a thirteen-year period—controlling for age, sex, and ethnicity—individuals who experienced relatively more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived as they aged.

There is also evidence that emotional experiences grow more stable with age and that the co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions or “poignancy” steadily increases with age. The work of Laura Carstensen and others argues that the concurrent experience of positive and negative emotions contributes to emotional stability and emotional stability is associated with well-being.

And relatively new work has suggested that older adults’ increased emotional stability allows them to successfully resist potentially unhealthy desires that conflict with their goals.

A biological basis for the positivity effect has not been identified and it may be more a function of the perspective of older individuals than due to any single signal or process in the brain.


There are both positives and negatives to aging and the finite nature of life often allows us to focus more on the positives. So, while aging has its downsides, it isn’t all that bad.

In fact, some research suggests having a positive self-perception of aging leads to living longer and better health in old age.

So, remember all the good things that come along with aging described above and try to have a positive perspective on your own aging… you might just live longer because of it.

All the best,

- Chris

Hungry for more? Check out these links:

Review on aging, decision making, affect, and dopamine’s role in these processes

Positive Perspective on Aging: Love & live the life you always wanted

Aging: It’s Not What You Think


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