By Sondra L. Shapiro
“Regrets I have a few, but then again, too few to mention” crooned Frank Sinatra. The words were in the context of someone at the end of life looking back.
That sentiment resonates as I happily admit to an absence of angst over unfulfilled goals and dreams. Life is less complicated and more enjoyable without lamenting some sort of past failure.
I’m not saying that I don’t experience disappointments or that I no longer have dreams or goals. I just don’t linger over things I believe are unchangeable — “what ifs” don’t exist in my vocabulary.
This reprieve from regret meshes with the idea of successful aging. Past studies have shown that regret can actually compromise a person’s immune system. A new study concurs that people who shrug off the coulda, shoulda, wouldas are emotionally healthier. In search of a biological basis for this idea, German researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of three groups of people: 21 young adults, 20 clinically depressed older adults who developed depression over the age of 55 and 20 healthy, much older individuals.
For the young, regret might help them make better decisions in the future. But the likelihood of second chances decreases with age, and any benefit of ruminating upon those chances probably disappears, conclude the researchers who just published their results in a recent edition of ScienceExpress.
“Life-span theories explain successful aging with an adaptive management of emotional experiences like regret. As opportunities to undo regrettable situations decline with age, a reduced engagement into these situations represents a potentially protective strategy to maintain well-being in older age” wrote the authors.
Designed to test an individual’s potential for regret, the study examined the reactions of the participants as they opened a series of eight boxes.
The opening revealed either a money value or a devil, which meant a loss of all the winnings from the other boxes. Participants could decide whether to continue on by opening another box
or to stop and settle on the money al-
At the end, the boxes were all opened so the participant could see how far he or she would have gotten before hitting a devil. When the younger people and older, depressed individuals saw how far they could get without hitting a devil, they were more likely to take risks by continuing to select boxes in future rounds, while the knowledge didn’t affect healthy, older people.
Brain scans of participants had similar results. Activity in a brain region called the ventral striatum, which is involved in feeling regret, and in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with emotion regulation, was similar between the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults showed a different brain-activity pattern, suggesting that they were experiencing less regret and regulating their emotions more effectively. Consistent with these experiments, the researchers also observed changes in “autonomic activity” — namely, skin conductance and heart rate — in depressed older adults but not in healthy older adults. The depressed adults experienced a lower heart rate, for example, when confronted with missed opportunities in a computer game.
Researchers surmise that healthy older adults likely use helpful mental strategies. For instance, they may believe things happen by chance; hence, if it’s beyond their control they don’t blame themselves. Unhappy people, on the other hand, blame themselves for outcomes.
The authors speculate that training people to use these mental strategies might help preserve emotional health in old age.
“Our results suggest that disengagement from regret reflects a critical resilience factor for emotional health in older age,” the authors wrote. If a person can emotionally move on from situations they know are unchangeable, they may be able to eliminate a risk of late-life depression, the authors believe.
Life is crammed with disappointments, so learning to manage emotional response could benefit the millions of older people who suffer depression. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade is an old adage packed with relevance — because sucking on pure lemon leaves a bitter taste for a long time.
It seems old sayings and song lyrics had it right all along.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at email@example.com, follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/shapiro50plus or read more at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.