A recent study links the neurochemical oxytocin to empathy and life satisfaction in older adults. Older people tend to engage more in helping behaviors and are more satisfied with their lives than younger people. The brain chemical oxytocin is associated with empathy and helpful behavior, and changes in oxytocin levels may explain these age-related changes.
A new study shows that older people show a greater increase in oxytocin levels in response to situations that elicit an emotional response than younger individuals. This greater oxytocin response could explain why older people are more satisfied with life and engage in more helpful behaviors.
A new study published in the journal Frontier in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that older people tend to release more oxytocin in response to social situations that evoke empathy. A greater response to oxytocin was also associated with higher levels of helping behavior and greater life satisfaction. These results could explain why older people donate more to charities and perform more social work.
“People who released the most oxytocin during the experiment were not only more generous with charity, but also engaged in many other helping behaviors. This is the first time that a marked change in oxytocin has been linked to previous prosocial behaviors,” he said. Dr. Paul Zak, research author and professor at Claremont Graduate University.
Oxytocin and social behavior
Oxytocin is a hormone that is responsible for contractions of the uterus during childbirth, breastfeeding and reproductive behavior. Oxytocin also modulates the transmission of signals between brain cells and participates in the modulation of social behavior. Human experiments suggest that brain oxytocin reduces anxiety and promotes trust, cooperation, empathy, generositySource of trust and social connection. Studies have shown that older people tend to donate more money to charity and are more likely to engage in volunteer work than younger people. A potential explanation for this increase in prosocial behavior could be greater empathy in response to social situations in older people than in younger people. Given the association between oxytocin and empathy, the study authors wanted to understand whether oxytocin plays a mediating role in increasing prosocial behavior in older adults.
Oxytocin and age
The authors of this study recruited 103 people between the ages of 18 and 99. The researchers divided the participants into three groups: young people (18 to 35 years), middle-aged adults (36 to 65 years) or older adults (over 65 years). They asked participants to watch a moving short video showing a father recounting his feelings about the impending death of his two-year-old son with terminal brain cancer.
Researchers took blood samples from participants before and after watching the video to measure oxytocin levels. Previous studies have shown that changes in oxytocin levels in the blood and brain tend to be correlated, allowing researchers to estimate changes in oxytocin levels in the brain using blood tests. The researchers found that older people showed a greater increase in oxytocin levels after watching the video than younger people.
Oxytocin and kindness
After watching the video, participants received a cash reward for participating in an unrelated study and the opportunity to donate a portion of the reward to a medical charity. Researchers found that people whose blood oxytocin levels rose more were more likely to donate more of the reward.
Older people also donated more of the reward to the charity. Studies conducted during the study showed that older people also spent more time on volunteer work and donated more to charities in the previous year. In particular, a small increase in oxytocin levels in older people was associated with a similar amount of donation as younger people with a greater response to oxytocin.
The study also found that aging led to a greater increase in charitable donations among seniors with a low response to oxytocin than among those with a higher response. The results suggest that aging and oxytocin response levels together affect donation amounts for charity.
Satisfaction with life and religiosity
Consistent with other studies, the researchers found that older adults were more likely to engage in religious activities and had a greater sense of life satisfaction. Studies have shown that older, more religious adults engage more in charitable and voluntary activities and express greater satisfaction with life.
The researchers found that a greater oxytocin response to video stimuli was associated with a greater sense of life satisfaction, participation in religious activities, and increased levels of empathy and gratitude.
The authors warned that the study only correlates oxytocin release with prosocial behavior and other traits. The results are particularly relevant because there is a two-way relationship between oxytocin release and prosocial behavior, where engagement in prosocial behavior is associated with subsequent increases in oxytocin levels.
Other studies also suggest that using intranasal spray to deliver oxytocin may improve mood and cognitive function, especially in older men. Although there is interest in the therapeutic use of intranasal oxytocin, the effects of oxytocin vary by context and individual.
Oxytocin release increases with age and is associated with life satisfaction and prosocial behavior
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