Research News

The Bright Side of Aging

IPR associate Claudia Haase studies emotional life of elderly

old folks
Claudia Haase and her colleagues have uncovered "a bright side" to aging.

In the United States, the number of people over the age of 65 has more than tripled since 1950, and declining birth rates and rising life expectancies means populations will continue to gray worldwide.

Such news has worried policymakers and researchers, explained IPR associate and developmental psychologist Claudia Haase at her recent IPR talk—in particular, due to findings revealing “patterns of decline for many aspects of functioning,” from physical health to cognitive ability.

While it might be tempting to assume that such patterns hold for all aspects of age-related functioning, “that’s not true,” she assured. Rather, Haase and other researchers have uncovered “a bright side” to aging.

Claudia Haase

To pursue this idea, they examined data from a number of studies, including a study of the relationships of 156 long-term married couples, followed by Robert Levenson of the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues every five years since 1989. 

As spouses aged, they showed more positive emotional behaviors, such as humor, and fewer negative ones, such as defensiveness, when they were discussing disagreements in their marriage. Spouses were also more likely to avoid conflict. As people get older, they are more likely to say, “Let’s just agree to disagree, and what’s for dinner?” Haase said. 

Haase’s studies suggest that as people grow older, their social and emotional lives improve. Yet, some age particularly well, while others age particularly poorly. Could DNA offer one explanation? Haase set out to examine how a gene involved in the regulation of serotonin, 5-HTTLPR, affects short-term emotions and long-term development. She and her colleagues found that people with two short alleles of 5-HTTLPR were more distressed, angry, or embarrassed in negative situations, but also smiled and laughed more in positive ones. In contrast, people with one or two long alleles were more even-tempered. These differences in short-term emotions can lead to differences in long-term development, as Haase showed in another study of 5-HTTLPR, emotion, and changes in marital happiness over 20 years.

While some studies have suggested that having two short alleles is a “really bad thing,” Haase’s research points to another view. “People with two short alleles may be like hothouse flowers, blossoming when the emotional climate is good and withering when it is bad,” she said. “Conversely, people with one or two long alleles are less sensitive.”

Finally, not everything gets better as we age—memory, for example. Can anything slow down age-related cognitive decline? Haase and her colleagues are investigating perhaps one of the biggest public health problems to face an aging population, rocketing numbers of Alzheimer’s diagnoses. Findings from a study of nearly 100 healthy, older adults suggest that engaging in activities as simple as playing games or taking walks is associated with better brain health in Alzheimer-relevant regions.

Aging might be a “challenging” process, Haase concluded, but “Late life can also be something to look forward to.”

To watch a new video in which Levenson discusses this research, follow this link.

For more information on Haase and Levenson's work, see this story in the Association for Psychological Science Observer.

Claudia Haase is assistant professor of Human Development and Social Policy and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: Flickr