Emotional functioning in later life

Dr Samantha Dench
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Head of Older People’s Team, Dorset HealthCare NHS Trust


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bullet Brief review of theory & research  
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Does emotionality change over the life span?

Later life is a long and varied stage of the life cycle.  Older people may face many different emotional and physical experiences and may have vastly different psychological, social and physical resources available for coping.  The interactions between a person’s physical, social and psychological resources is complex.  However, in contrast to physical and social resources, a person’s psychological coping/resources may be more implicit and difficult to identify.

There has been debate about whether aspects of psychological coping/functioning change across the lifespan.  However, Coleman (1996) notes that there is a growing consensus that personality traits tend to be stable with age but that key aspects of self such as goals, values, coping styles and control beliefs are more amenable to change.  In addition to the above, approaches to considering emotional functioning in later life vary in the degree to how much an older person is seen as primarily a passive recipient of changes with age (e.g. being at increased risk from physical health decline and bereavements) or more of an active agent in seeking ways to maintain and/or developing their emotional well-being.

The topic of emotional functioning in older people is a vast and until more recently there have been very few empirical studies to help to throw more light onto this important area.  The number of studies is still limited but this brief review article aims to initially outline some key approaches and perspectives relating to emotional functioning in later life before going on to look at a some relevant empirical research findings related to older peoples experiences of emotions.

 Approaches and perspectives of emotionality and ageing

 Biological perspectives

older-adults-grandmaIt has been noted by Charles, Mather & Carstensen (2003) that up to the1990’s, some theorists conceptualised later life as a time of blunted affect and emotional regulation.  Emotions were assumed to deteriorate along-side cognitive and biological functions and older people were seen as primarily passive recipients of a biological decline in emotional functioning.

There is still a growing range of literature outlining research with older people to investigate ageing and organic/biological cognitive deficits associated with emotional regulation. Some of these are focused on neurological studies which attempt to look into the relationship between organic brain pathology (e.g. from radiological test such as CT and MRI scans) and a number of skills that may come under the umbrella term of cognitive functioning (including emotional regulation skills).  Neuro-imaging studies have been cited in studies and review articles exploring the links between organic disruption of the brain’s pathways (especially of the frontal lobe and sub-cortical pathways) and deficits in aspects of emotional regulation/functioning (e.g. Davidson, Putman & Larson, 2000 and Liotii & Mayberg, 2001). Whilst it is important to acknowledge the fact that older people are more likely to suffer from certain forms of degenerative brain diseases (e.g. dementias) that involve disruption of brain pathways it must be recognised that only a minority of older people suffer with these conditions.

There are some more general well documented gradual declines in cognitive control with age (e.g. with aspects of attention and memory).  In addition, recent research into recognition of emotional facial expressions has indicated that older people do less well on aspects of this part of emotional processing (Phillips, MacLean & Allen, 2002). Given that research with younger adults suggests that the mechanisms used to regulate emotions are implemented by some of the same brain regions as mechanisms used to control cognitions (Ochsner and Gross (2004) cited in Mather and Carstensen (2005)), it might be reasonable to expect that older people would experience less effective emotional regulation as cognitive control declines. However, Mather and Carstensen (2005) suggest that more recent perspectives do not support the view that cognitive decline from normal aging necessarily impairs emotional control. These authors cite studies that indicate that when compared with younger adults, older adults report that they focus more on self-control and report their emotional regulation skills as better (e.g. Lawton, Kleblan, Rajagopal, & Dean (1992); Gross, Carstensen, Pasupathi, Tsai, Gotestram Skorpen & Hsu, (1997)).

There may again be a physiological component to the reports of increased emotional regulation in later life as research findings have also indicated that older adults also report experiencing less surgency (an emotion similar to excitement) and demonstrate less physiological responsiveness during emotional experiences than do younger adults (Lawton et, al.,1992; Levenson, Carstensen, Friesen & Ekman, 1991).  Therefore there could be less strong emotional responses to control.

However, Tsai, Levenson, & Carstensen, (2000) identify that there is a bit of chicken and the egg scenario with this research.  On one hand reductions in cardiovascular activity may play an important role in observed improvements in emotional regulation.  On the other, it may be that older adults may actively regulate their emotions so that they are less physiologically taxing. To explain reports of better emotional regulation in the face of cognitive decline, Mather and Carstensen (2005) add that older people may be motivated to make significant shifts in the way that they allocate their emotional control processes /resources on a daily basis.  This latter issue of the possibility of developmental change in management of emotions in later life will be discussed further in the developmental section.

Cohort and cultural perspectives

olderadultsbenchCohort effect refers to the impact that social/political environment during early formative years has on a persons life. It considers how individuals of a birth year defined group have been socialised into certain abilities, beliefs and attitudes.  These in turn may affect the way they process and express feelings. For example, whilst cultural/gender issues must be considered, for the majority of the current UK cohorts born before 1940, it has been noted that many were socialised into believing that it was important to suppress feelings and keep a stiff upper lip. In the United States Costa McCrae & Arenberg (1983) found personality cohort effects in which later born cohorts were less restrained and higher in dominance that those born earlier this century. It is reasonable to consider that a similar pattern may apply to the UK. Just considering how more recent generations are socialised to being clients with greater expectations about choice of services and general material increases in standards of living and life expectancy are issues that are probably only just the tip of the iceberg in considering cohort changes relevant to emotional functioning and processing.

 Little research appears to have looked into how ethnic/cultural groups may hold different beliefs about expression and regulation of emotions. Tsai et al. (2000) note that compared with American culture, anthropological reports suggest that Chinese culture more strongly emphasises the control and moderation of emotional expression.  It is important to acknowledge the potential combined impact of cultural and cohort effects on emotional functioning in later life.  Unfortunately a greater understanding of these issues will not be possible until more research has been conducted as Tai et al. (2000) point out that the bulk of reported literature on emotional functioning appears to focus on European Americans.

Developmental models and perspectives

Many developmental models of ageing consider that needs and motivation may change across the life span in an individual’s development.

One of the most well known developmental models of ageing is Erikson’s 1963 (cited in Coleman, 1999) famous dichotomy of ego-integrity or despair in later life. In this model of development across the life-span, successful ageing involves the self being transformed in late-life by “integrity” (the acceptance of the gift of one’s life), (Coleman, 1999). Integrity is associated with feeling satisfied with achievements, contentment and psychological maturity.  In contrast despair is associated with feeling that many decisions were wrong, but that time is too short to change things and feeling bitter and un-accepting of death.  Coleman (1999) points out that there is evidence for the change in self-conceptions across the life-span in the way that Erikson suggests in older people e.g. towards greater self-acceptance (Ryff, 1991).  However, he also notes that there has been considerable empirical research that indicates that self-conception is relatively stable with age (Baltes & Baltes, 1990).

 Despite this stability, motivational studies have found systematic differences between younger and older people, with the latter emphasising the past more and pursuing maintenance of present positive conditions rather than development and change (Dittmann-Kohli, 1990). Related to this Baltes & Baltes (1990) have described a model of selective optimization and compensation as a prototype strategy of successful ageing.  Selection is related to the adaptive task of the person and society to concentrate on those domains that are high priority and which suit their situation and skills.  Optimization relates to the view that people will have become skilled at maximising their chosen life courses associated with quality and quantity.  Compensation, results from restrictions in the range of adaptive potentials, and involves both mind and technology.

Closely related to the above and relevant to emotional experience and processing in later life, Carstensen (1995) has put forward a socio-emotional selectivity theory of ageing.  In this theory older people are not just passive victims of physical decline or upbringing. This theory makes specific predictions about developmental change in emotional well-being and emotional processing.  It suggests that peoples’ goals reflect their awareness of time left in life. Older adults, recognising that time is limited aim to optimise emotional meaning in their lives. This optimising may often include structuring their lives to avoid potentially negative events and choosing well-known, supportive social partners (Carstensen, 1995).  In doing so it is suggested that they are using emotional coping skills acquired over the life span to construct environments that promote well-being.   The avoidance of negative affect and promotion of well-being may help explain Gross et al’s (1997) finding that older adults report that they are better able to control their emotions.

Further to the above, Charles and Carstensen have published a number of papers discussing socio-emotional selectivity theory which proposes a greater investment in emotional regulation with age.

 Personality variables

 To discuss a comprehensive range of personality variables that may effect emotional functioning in later life is beyond the scope of this article.  However, the impact of personality traits appears to be a particularly relevant area to consider.  This is because, as previously mentioned, there is a growing consensus that personality traits tend to be stable with age.  Studies indicate that neuroticism has been found to be associated with depression (Costa & Mc Crae,1990) and extroversion has been associated with positive affect (De Neve & Cooper, 1998). Further to this both neuroticism and extraversion have been identified as variables that influence the relationship between age and affect (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998).

 Research into emotional functioning in later life

It was previously mentioned, that until relatively recently, there has been a lack of empirical studies to throw more light on the pattern of emotional functioning in older adults.  Of the existing research, many studies have focused on exploring patterns of negative and positive affect across the life-span.

 Positive and negative affect in later life

olderadultswalkingIn their review of recent studies, Carstensen and Charles, (1998) note that a number of empirical cross sectional studies have indicated that the pattern of emotional experience in later life is characterised by less frequent negative affect and improved emotional control. They suggest that overall the findings for positive affect are less consistent than those for negative affect, with few consistent age differences being found and some suggesting greater positive affect and others a slight decrease in positive affect with age. Taking the available cross-sectional and limited longitudinal data together Carstensen and Charles (1988) conclude that findings suggest “a great deal of intraindividuality in successive age groups until very old age, at which time there is an upturn in negative affect”.

 Although differences in positive and negative affect between younger and older adults have been found in cross-sectional studies, Charles, Reynolds and Gatz (2001) point out that few longitudinal have investigated whether these differences may be the result of cohort effects or developmental trends across the life span.

In addition, they suggest that whilst personality traits have been shown to influence the relationship between age and affect (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998), how these variables influence intra-individual changes in positive and negative affect has not been explored.

 The Charles et al. (2001) study

Following from the above, Charles, Reynolds and Gatz (2001), studied the frequency and intensity of both positive and negative emotions, assuming that the two might show very different patterns.  The research involved analysis of 23 years of data collected on four generations of U.S citizens (N = 2,804). Participants filled out psychological tests and rating scales at five different time points in the study.

 In order to investigate whether differences might be due to events that occurred over the last 23 years (a cohort effect) the researchers also studied people of different ages at each point in the study.  The study also analysed possible covariates that may account for the relationship between age and affect e.g. health status and life events, education and personality variables.


1)Self-Rated Health Measure

3)      Functional Health (ability to perform activities of daily living)

4)      Neuroticism and Extraversion -short form (Form B Eysenck Personality Inventory
(Eysenck & Eysenck)

Overall Charles et al. (2001) reported that findings examining positive and negative affect separately revealed that age differences in well-being reflect both developmental and historical influences, but these influences vary according to the two types of affect (either positive or negative) that comprise the overall measure of well-being.

 Negative affect

tennis-manFor people of all ages, negative affect decreased over time.  In contrast to younger adults and middle-aged adults, older adults had a much slower rate of decrease of negative affect.  At around age 60, the rate of decrease slowed significantly but continued into old age. Age-sequential analyses did not support the possibility that this difference was due to a cohort effect.

 Charles et al. (2001) noted that the large amount in variance in negative affect indicated that the general decrease in negative affect over time is not universal and that other variables may account for inter individual differences in inter individual change.  Covariates were examined and neuroticism had the strongest effect in that individuals who scored higher on neuroticism had higher ratings for negative affect and were less likely to exhibit decreases in negative affect. No other variables analysed in this study influenced change in negative affect over time.

 Analysis of individual scale items for negative affect revealed feelings of restlessness and feeling criticised decreased to a greater extent in the older sample than did the other questions.  Charles et al. (2001) suggest that this decrease in restlessness is akin to findings that self-reported emotional surgency decreases with age and is consistent with findings indicating lower physiological arousal in reaction to emotional experiences for older adults than for younger adults.  Regarding the decrease in criticism, Charles et al.(2001), point out that researchers have suggested that older adults are less preoccupied with concerns about how others view them (e.g. Peck 1968) and that they are more likely to structure their environment to avoid negative interactions with others (Carstensen, Gross & Fung, 1998).

 Positive Affect

Positive affect was associated with stability in the study for younger or middle-aged groups and no significant cohort effects were found for their positive affect scores. Small but significant age related differences were found for older adults and these differences indicated both developmental change and cohort effects. The oldest age group showed gradual decline in positive affect when individuals were measured from, on average, their mid 60’s to mid 80’s.  Cohort effects were evident in the older male participants from the cohort who were around age 64 and responded in 1971 reporting lower positive affect than those who were around this age in 1991.  Charles et al. (2001) suggest that this cohort effect may be related to the earlier cohort living through the Great Depression in the first part of the 20th century and this having a lasting influence on how they perceive others and the world and thereby how they rate their experience of positive affect.  Alternatively they suggest that this finding may be related to the research of Costa et al.(1987) which indicated that older cohorts may be more reluctant to express their feelings.

 The gradual decline in positive affect among older people could not be attributed to changes in marital status or declines in functional or self-reported health.  However, decreases in frequency of reports were most evident for scale items such as feeling on top of the world, excited about something and that things were going my way.  The first two of these items are particularly related to aspects of emotional surgency, which as previously mentioned has been found to decrease in older people. In addition, Charles et al. (2001) cite Heckhausen’s (1997) finding that older people reported feeling less control over their environment and suggest that this factor may in part help explain the participants responses indicating that they were less likely to feel that things were going their way.

Personality covariates were examined and people who scored high on neuroticism were more likely to have initially lower scores on positive affect and were more likely to show a decrease in positive affect scores over time. In contrast extroversion was found to have had the opposite effect with those with higher initial extroversion scores being more likely to have initially higher positive affect scores and these being more likely to remain stable in their higher levels of positive affect than those who scored lower on extroversion measure.

 Study Summary

Overall, Charles et al’s 2001 study supports the notion that positive and negative emotions are independent.  They found that older people seem to experience less negative emotions such as loneliness, depression, anger and boredom as they age.  Higher neuroticism score attenuated the decrease in negative affect across time.  This decrease is strongest up to 65, and negative emotions decrease more slowly after that point up to age 80.  Positive emotions remained stable through mid-life, decreasing slightly in older adults. Higher levels of extroversion were related to more stability in positive affect. In sum results indicate that positive affect remains fairly stable across time and negative affect decreases across the adult life span.

 How does this recent empirical study relate to previously mentioned approaches and perspectives
relating to emotional functioning in later life?

When considering the above question, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the Charles et al. study. In particular, the authors note the limitations of the psychometric properties of the well-being scale (Bradburn,1969) that was the best measure around at the time of the initial measurement. Relevant study limitation are considered within each perspective area below.

 Biological perspectives

Some results from the Charles et al. (2001) may be seen as consistent with the case for the impact of biological influences on emotional experience and processing with age. Charles et al. (2001) suggest that a biological influence of lower physiological response to emotional events may have had a beneficial effect for the experience and control of negative affect across the life span, as lower levels of physiological arousal needed to be modulated and controlled.  However, this is only speculative as physiological responsiveness was not measured during this study. Further to this general health well-being from this study’s self-report measure were not found to have a significant impact on changes in experiences of positive and negative affect in later life. This later finding runs contrary to some earlier biological perspectives on links between physical decline and emotional well-being in the aging process.

Charles et al. (2001) acknowledged the limitations of their study in further exploring biological/cognitive processes involved when appraising negative events. They suggest research in this area may help provide a better picture of some of the mechanism underling the age differences.  This latter issue is beginning to be explored further (e.g. Mather & Carstensen, 2005 and Knight and Mather, 2006).

 Cohort/cultural  perspectives

older-gent-with-dogWith regards to cohort effects, this study provides some evidence for an impact of cohort on experience of positive affect.  This is as earlier male cohorts at around the age of 64 years reported lower positive affect than those cohorts reaching this age more recently. The authors raised some speculative cohort and biological explanations that may have contributed to this finding. Further to this it would be interesting to know whether there was an interaction with economic/ environmental hardship and biological factors (e.g. poorer diet) for earlier cohorts which may only come to light and impact on affect later on in life.

Charles et al. (2001) acknowledged that information on potential cultural differences in emotional functioning/regulation in later life was not gained as participants in the study were mainly married and Caucasian.

 Developmental perspectives

There was some evidence to support a developmental model of change in emotional experience in later life as there was a general decrease in negative affect over time.  However, this was not universal and the co-variate of neuroticism strongly influenced this effect.  The finding may still be consistent with the socio-emotional selectivity model’s proposal that older people may structure their environment to avoid negative interactions with others.  Despite this it is not possible to estimate the potential impact that a physiological effect of decreased physiological response/ emotional surgency may have had on reported affect levels. Further to this, developmental models do not help explain positive affect decreasing from mid 60’s to mid 80’s.

 Personality perspectives

Results support previous findings reporting the influence of neuroticism/extraversion on affect across life-span.


 Overall the recent research by Charles et al. (2001) gives a refreshing and more optimistic outlook of emotional functioning in later life. However, there is clearly still a long way to go to understand more about the complex interactions of psychological, social and physical influences on emotional processing and functioning in later life.