Last month’s poll: Happy but distracted?

Smart Aging Studies indicate that we are getting happier as we age. This is good news. But is there a trade off?

Research shows that positive emotions increase across the adult lifespan and negative emotions decrease. Stress and worry levels decline as we age, as do sadness and anger. Studies have also shown that older adults rate their well-being higher than younger adults do.

This positive emotional experience increases with age and only starts to decline by the time adults reach their 80s, notes Dr. Lynn Hasher, Baycrest senior scientist. Hasher and her PhD student, Renee Biss, have been looking at the degree to which these positive emotions may be contributing to differences in cognition (attention and memory) between younger and older adults.

In their lab, Hasher and Biss give older and younger adults a questionnaire which includes different emotion adjectives. They found that, on average, older adults rate their current experience of positive emotions (e.g. happy, content, caring) more highly than younger adults do.

“Dr. Hasher’s previous research work has indicated that as we age our ability to focus and ignore distraction decreases. We started to wonder whether mood may contribute to differences in our ability to ignore distraction,” explains Biss.

Happy mood may weaken ability to focus

Hasher and Biss began to induce happy and neutral (less positive) moods in younger and older adults by showing them a variety of emotional photos and videos. Surprisingly, they found that when younger adults are in a happy mood, they have trouble focusing and ignoring distraction, similar to older adults.

The researchers also have some preliminary evidence to suggest that putting older adults in a less positive mood actually helps them stay focused and pay less attention to distraction.

“So, putting younger adults in a positive mood made their cognition (attention and focus) more like older adults, and putting older adults in a neutral (or less positive) mood makes their cognition more like younger adults,” adds Biss.

For happy older adults, maybe that’s a trade off they can live with.

To support Baycrest and exciting initiatives, DONATE ONLINE or call the donations line at 416-785-2875 or 1-800-223-2087.