Understanding how people stay happy later in life

The MRI scanner at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN)

Dr Carien van Reekum, a researcher at the University’s Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN), is due to begin a £465,000 study this year after receiving a grant from research council the BBSRC.

Dr van Reekum said the results of the research could help to break down misunderstandings about mental health and ageing among the general public and inform governments and public health bodies how to maintain levels of wellbeing among an ageing population.

“With a projected rise of 32% in the population aged 65 and over by 2033, it is crucial that we understand and promote processes that support healthy ageing,” she said.

“The issue of later life wellbeing is key to lessen the burden on long-term health care, lower the impact of later-life depression and promote continued involvement in society by the elderly.”

While we know a great deal about how our brains ‘shrink’ as we get older – affecting abilities such as memory, attention, planning and movement – little is known about how they impact our emotional wellbeing. If these brain systems deteriorate with age, then do older adults deal with emotional situations less well – or do they use different brain systems to stay happy in their daily lives? 

“Large survey studies have reported an increase in positive emotion with age, with some psychologists suggesting an improvement in the skills to regulate one’s emotions,” Dr van Reekum said.

“What has not to date been studied is how these age-related individual differences in cognitive ability associated with differences in the structure of the brain affect our ability to appropriately regulate emotion.”

Researchers will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of volunteers aged 55 to 85, as well as a control group of younger people, while measuring their physiological and behavioural responses to emotion regulation tasks.

Outside the scanner, scientists will conduct cognitive tests, wellbeing surveys and daily saliva samples to measure changes in stress hormones. Researchers will then analyse the data to see how individuals whose brains have deteriorated with age compensate by activating their brains differently when regulating emotion, and examine how people’s ability to regulate emotion, even in the face of decline in cognitive ability and brain matter, affects people’s stress levels and sense of wellbeing.

Scientists hope the research will aid understanding of how older adults can successfully adapt to stressful events by regulating their emotions, leading to the creation of more effective treatments to promote lifelong wellbeing.


For more information or interview requests, contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or [email protected].

Notes to editors

The University of Reading is one of the top UK research-intensive universities, and is ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world (Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-12).

The Department of Psychology has a long-standing reputation for excellence in experimental psychology, perception, learning, memory and skilled performance. In recent years, research has focused on the developmental psychology, neuroscience, ageing, emotional disorders in children and adults, virtual reality and multimedia interactions.

The Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN) at the University of Reading builds upon existing interdisciplinary research into the physiological and psychological mechanisms underpinning complex cognitive behaviours, targeting typical and atypical development and decline in individuals. CINN research involves scientists in Psychology, Pharmacy, Biosciences and Genetics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Cybernetics and Clinical Language Sciences.