The emotion paradox in the aging body and brain

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2024 Apr 27. doi: 10.1111/nyas.15138. Online ahead of print.


With age, parasympathetic activity decreases, while sympathetic activity increases. Thus, the typical older adult has low heart rate variability (HRV) and high noradrenaline levels. Younger adults with this physiological profile tend to be unhappy and stressed. Yet, with age, emotional experience tends to improve. Why does older adults’ emotional well-being not suffer as their HRV decreases? To address this apparent paradox, I present the autonomic compensation model. In this model, failing organs, the initial phases of Alzheimer’s pathology, and other age-related diseases trigger noradrenergic hyperactivity. To compensate, older brains increase autonomic regulatory activity in the pregenual prefrontal cortex (PFC). Age-related declines in nerve conduction reduce the ability of the pregenual PFC to reduce hyperactive noradrenergic activity and increase peripheral HRV. But these pregenual PFC autonomic compensation efforts have a significant impact in the brain, where they bias processing in favor of stimuli that tend to increase parasympathetic activity (e.g., stimuli that increase feelings of safety) and against stimuli that tend to increase sympathetic activity (e.g., threatening stimuli). In summary, the autonomic compensation model posits that age-related chronic sympathetic/noradrenergic hyperactivity stimulates regulatory attempts that have the side effect of enhancing emotional well-being.

PMID:38676452 | DOI:10.1111/nyas.15138