When you think of old age – of people over the age of 65 years – what immediately comes to mind?  If you were to answer memory problems, slowing down, poorer ability to make decisions, and the like, then you’d be conveying a view of aging that is rooted in reality.  Decades of research document substantial age-related declines in many cognitive functions – such as memory, attention, language, and even our ability to reason and problem solve. So, are we all doomed to a fate of flawed reasoning as we age?

Recent research indicates that the answer is a resounding no. Although declines in reasoning and cognition are undeniable, there is a burgeoning literature indicating that our emotions can save the day. As we age, it seems, we are better able to harness the power of our emotions: they can help us make decisions – and even in navigating social situations. 

For example, as we age, we are better able to control our emotions, and we can use our emotions in ways that improve our well-being. When presented with emotionally charged situations, older individuals, for instance, use strategies that focus on the positive and minimize the negative.  Such a focus brings benefits in that older adults experience fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions in their daily lives. But do these emotional gains have the power to assuage the cognitive losses?

My own recent research indicates that when older adults rely more on emotion to make decisions, the quality of their decisions is superior. In particular, we had older and younger adults make healthcare decisions (e.g., choosing a new physician or healthcare plan). We presented people with a choice between two alternatives, for instance a physician who participates in continuing education, interacts well with his staff, but has few years of experience versus another physician who is recommended by consumer organizations, but sometimes acts arrogantly and is not sensitive to individual patient needs.  While participants were considering information of this sort, we had some of them focus on all the details and make their decision with careful analysis of the facts.  For other participants, we had them consider all of the details but focus on how they felt about each of the physicians.

We found that younger adults made the best decisions when reasoning through the decisions, but the older participants did better by focusing on their feelings. In fact, focusing on their feelings allowed seniors to do just as well as the young. When making decisions, older adults can capitalize on their emotional strengths to offset their cognitive deficits.

The wisdom of the heart also appears to help older adults resolve interpersonal issues.  For instance, older adults shift their attention away from the negative aspects of conflicts and are generally less reactive to social conflicts.  Thus, older adults are better able to navigate emotional matters in interpersonal conflicts, and this strength results in better marriages, better friendships, and closer bonds relative to their younger counterparts.  Moreover, it appears that the higher levels of well-being in older adults is contagious by eliciting positivity in their social partners.

With age, then, comes a special talent in using emotion.  Importantly, the gains from focusing on the emotional side of life may even counteract the diminishing ability of some older adults to make good decisions.  It seems they have a secret that people of all ages could benefit from: it’s okay to listen to the beat of your heart and follow where it leads.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.