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Stanford University School of Medicine

A look at how emotions and cognition interact during the aging process

The ability to automatically control emotions — something that most of us don’t even realize we have — gets disrupted in older adults with poor attention and working memory skills. That's according to a Stanford study being published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"This finding is important for understanding why some older adults experience worsening anxiety and depression as they age," said Nathan Hantke, PhD, first author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow here.

"This study may bridge the gap between understanding how our emotions and cognition interact throughout the aging process, suggesting a breakdown in particular brain circuits," Hantke added.

To conduct the study, the researchers had 83 older adults with minimal mental health issues take a series of cognitive and emotion conflict tasks. For example, to measure “working memory” — which is the ability to hold information in your mind and move it around — they told participants a series of numbers and asked them to repeat the numbers, but backwards, from last to first.

By comparing results with the emotional conflict task, they were able to measure a correlation between poor attention and working memory skills and disrupted emotional control.

"Everybody knows that cognition is affected in some way in older adults," Sherry Beaudreau, PhD, one of the senior authors, said. What’s less known is how cognition and the ability to regulate emotions work together. The present findings suggest mental health interventions that attempt to concurrently address cognitive problems, such as problem solving therapy, may be particularly helpful in older adults with difficulties in regulating emotions. "It may be that improving these specific cognitive abilities improves your mood, or vice versa."

What is still not certain is whether anxiety and depression may worsen cognitive skills or if low cognitive skills cause poor emotion control which can lead to anxiety and depression. It’s an interplay that could go either way or both ways.

Ruth O’Hara, PhD, the other senior author, has funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to probe this question further by comparing older adults with emotion regulation problems, evidenced by diagnoses of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, with healthy older adults without psychiatric symptoms. The ultimate goal is to find better ways to treat the older adults with mental health disorders.

Previously: Tick tock goes the clock — is aging the biggest illness of all? and Neighborhood’s “walkability” helps older adults maintain physical and cognitive health
Photo by danna § curious tangles

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