November 24, 2014

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Aging leads to better emotional control

By Jane Glenn Haas
The Orange County Register

Here is an upside to the passing years: Older adults control emotions more easily than younger adults.
That’s the result of a study by Dr. Fredda Blanchard-Fields, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology.
And before you say “so what,” listen to her comments:

“Because emotions can disrupt decisions and thinking, this ability to control emotions is one way older people have a higher quality of life,” she tells me. “It’s one reason they are happier and have higher well being.”
Q. Give me an idea of how younger people react to a situation — like, what, a car accident?
A. Young and middle aged people often rush into situations. Their emotions take over and they react. In everyday problem solving in particular, older adults know when to move in and when to let it be. They seem to know when it is not the time to get over-reactive. And that does them well.
Q. How is this linked to stress?
A. Older adults can better modulate situations so the inference is that this positions them better in stressful situations. They are better at preventing their emotions from accelerating.
Q. You studied people in their 20s and 30s and people older than 70. And you found this difference. Is it physical?
A. There are physiological indices of stress levels and that type of thing. Biological markers.
Q. Do these emotional controls include family, romantic partners?
A. When there is conflict in situations involving family, friends and romantic partners, we find older people can regulate their emotions better. They know when to step back and withdraw from the situation.
Q. You showed your control groups of younger and older adults a two-minute “Fear Factor” TV clip depicting a woman eating something revolting in order to win money. What was the overall conclusion?
A. After being told to turn their disgust into positive feelings, the younger adults performed significantly worse than the older adults in the memory test. Older adults who were given the same instructions continued to improve at the memory task.
Negative emotions can be toxic and disrupt one’s balance in life so the ability of older adults to regulate negative emotions serves to enhance their quality of life. Older adults are so efficient at dealing with their emotions that it doesn’t cost them any decrease in performance, which is a very positive thing.

Q. You said this ability also serves them well if they are involved in an angry situation?
A. Older adults are good at avoiding anger. They withdraw from the situation. They are adaptive not passive. That means they know what to do and allocate their resources effectively.

Q. Somehow, that isn’t the picture I have of all older adults.
A. Well, there is a lot of variability. Sometimes you can’t avoid anger. But overall, these studies seem to prove that in some life situations, being older can be a benefit.

Jane Glenn Haas writes for The Orange County (Calif.) Register. E-mail her at jghaas@cox.net.