The Chemistry of Ageing Gracefully

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The Chemistry of Ageing Gracefully

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Are you one of those people who dread the prospect of getting older or who think that your glory days are well behind you? If you are, then perhaps you should think again.

New research says that life satisfaction and relative happiness increase after the age of 40 and the reason is a change in brain chemistry that helps us all become kinder to others, more caring, more considered and perhaps even a little wiser, all of which leads to greater satisfaction with life.

The brain, says a study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, releases more of a substance known as oxytocin as we age.

“The findings of our study are consistent with many religions and philosophies, where satisfaction with one’s life is enhanced by helping others,” says one of the study’s authors, Dr Paul J Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California.

“Participants in our study who released the most oxytocin were more generous to charity when given the opportunity and performed many other helping behaviours. The change in oxytocin was also positively related to participants’ empathy, religious participation, and gratitude.”

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone that is also known as the “love hormone”, and it plays a vital part in human bonding. It’s the substance that is released in the brain when a parent first engages with an infant after birth, and it plays an equally significant role in breastfeeding.

However, production of this substance plateaus during our adolescence and early adult lives through to around our mid-40s but gradually increases as we age until our 70s.

Dr Zak and his team hoped to better understand how this slow increase in oxytocin is released in the brain and how it influences our behaviour and feelings in later life.

“We have previously shown a link between how kind and generous people are, known as prosocial behaviours, and the release of oxytocin,” says Dr Zak. “Seniors spend more time volunteering and donate a larger proportion of their income to charity than do younger people, so we wanted to see if there was a neurochemical basis for these behaviours.”

To set up the study, researchers recruited more than 100 people ranging between the ages of 18 and 99. Each viewed a video about a little boy with cancer, which earlier work had confirmed was able to induce oxytocin release in the brain. A blood sample was then taken from each participant before and after they watched the video to allow the scientists to measure the change in oxytocin levels in their bloodstream. 

“Participants had the option to donate some of their earnings from the study to a childhood cancer charity, and this was used to measure their immediate prosocial behaviour. We also collected data on their emotional states, to provide information on their overall satisfaction with life,” says Dr Zak.

“People who released the most oxytocin in the experiment were not only more generous to charity, but also performed many other helping behaviours. This is the first time a distinct change in oxytocin has been related to past prosocial behaviours,” says Dr Zak.

“We also found that the release of oxytocin increased with age and was positively associated with life satisfaction.”

Serving and helping others appears to prime the brain to release more oxytocin in a positive feedback loop of increased empathy and gratitude.

Zak would like to repeat this study in a more ethnically and geographically diverse sample of people to see if the findings hold for diverse cultures.

“We would also like to conduct a longer-term measurement of neurophysiology using non-invasive wearable technologies to see what specific activities raise people’s satisfaction with life,” he says.

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