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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Aging and Regret

Since opportunities to reverse the consequences of regrettable behavior decline with age, responsiveness to missed chances becomes a critical life-satisfaction factor in older adults. Recent life-span psychology findings show that emotional disengagement from regret is associated with increased well-being in older age.

A Cognitive and Emotional Aging research group project investigated whether neurobiological mechanisms underlie such successful adaption to age-specific challenges. The study combined brain imaging with a risk-taking task that induces the feeling of regret in young as well as in emotionally-successful and -unsuccessful (i.e. late-life depressed) aged volunteers. Only the healthy, elderly participants showed a reduced responsiveness to regret which was accompanied by brain changes that indicate adaptive shifts in emotion regulation. Older and depressed participants, on the other hand, demonstrated more “youth-like” regret engagement.

The study findings show that the way we evaluate and regulate missed chances changes with successful aging and that the brain modulates these changes. It seems to be essential for our emotional well-being not to look back in anger, but to focus on the positive, when older. The fact that emotionally healthy older people engage regulatory brain regions, when confronted with regretful events, points to our life-long ability to deal with the demands of changing life-circumstances. Thus, these findings provide new perspectives for the treatment of late-life depression and for prevention strategies to maintain emotional health when we age. For more information, click here.
This article was first published in the newsletter of the German Center for Research and Innovation (a member of the EACCNY) with a contribution by Dr. Stefanie Brassen (Head of the Cognitive and Emotional Aging research group, Department of Systems Neuroscience, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf)