The Self-Regulation of Emotion in Older Adults

Steiner, Amanda Rachel White, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Coan, James, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Converging lines of evidence implicate the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in the emotional functioning of infants, adolescents, and adults (Coan & Allen, 2008), but little research has documented the relationships between PFC activity and the affective functioning of older adults. For this study, we ask how the physiological changes that accompany aging relate to emotional functioning in older adulthood. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to compare PFC activity in 60 older adults and 60 younger adults while they regulated their emotional responses to generalized and agingrelevant negative affect provocations. Relatively greater left prefrontal activity is associated with approach-oriented responses to stressors, whereas relatively greater right prefrontal activity corresponds with withdrawal-oriented strategies (Coan et al., 2006). We expected that aging-relevant stimuli would induce greater right prefrontal activity in older adults relative to younger adults, and that participants challenged to regulate their emotional responses would show more pronounced and stable asymmetries than those who were asked to simply respond normally. Finally, we hypothesized that more affectively challenging conditions would elicit the strongest relationships between frontal EEG asymmetry and subjective measures of emotional health. Results indicated that older adults subjectively responded with greater NA to aging-relevant stimuli relative to younger adults. Findings pertaining to physiological responding were more mixed. Though film valence had an effect on EEG asymmetry scores across both age groups, only a subsample of the older adults demonstrated the expected pattern of associations between frontal EEG asymmetry and measures of welliii being. We discuss these findings in the context of methodological issues pertaining to both aging and psychophysiological research. Taken together, the current study presents one of the first attempts to synthesize findings from gerontology, neuroscience, and psychology to generate a more complete understanding of the role of age in emotional reactivity and regulation; as such, we expect this research to lead to an increased awareness of factors underlying well-being and life satisfaction across the lifespan.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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