10 Oct 2019

Older men lose ability to recognise emotions

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 10 October 2019

Could cases of sexual harassment be put down to brain ageing?

While that might sound controversial, Professor Ted Ruffman, from the School of Psychology at the University of Otago, has conducted research that could support this argument, especially in cases involving older men.

Older men show greater decline in emotion recognition.

Older men show greater decline in emotion recognition. Photo: Creative Commons

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Ted Ruffman’s research explores bodily, facial and vocal expressions and the way that social understanding changes as we age. 

He says older men show a greater decline in brain ageing compared with women and young adults.

And with brain ageing comes an inability to recognise emotions.

The most difficult emotions for older adults to recognise are facial expressions showing anger, sadness and fear.

“I remember coming across the case of an American television presenter who had been essentially harassing younger female colleagues, including wandering around naked,” says Dr Ruffman.

“He genuinely thought they shared the same interests and that the feeling was mutual.” Ruffman suspects that brain ageing could contribute to a difficulty in reading signals, which could be pertinent in cases of sexual harassment.  

“Certainly an argument can be made. I guess what happens then, is that it’s all about intention. If a man has no intention to be inappropriate, yet his actions are perceived as inappropriate the question in the eyes of the law - is he culpable?”

Brain ageing begins in middle age.

Brain ageing begins in middle age. Photo: Creative Commons

In his study, Ruffman looked at adults 60 years and over. Participants were given either a placebo or oxytocin, which facilitates neural transmission.

For those given oxytocin, ten squirts were administered up the nostrils over a 5-minute period. After 45-minutes, Ruffman looked at their ability to recognise emotions.

The effect of the oxytocin lasted a couple of hours, with older men showing an improvement in emotion recognition. On the other hand, there was very little change amongst the women.

Women are generally better at recognising emotions than men. And the reason for the difference could be related to biology. 

“What happens in the first three months in your mother’s womb [is that] boys begin producing testosterone that circulates in the womb and that changes the way the brain develops,” says Ruffman.

He says it’s also possible that girls are being socialised differently than boys, with parents putting more emphasis on emotions in their interactions with girls.

What if our ability to recognize emotions ceased to exist.

What if our ability to recognise emotions ceased to exist. Photo: Creative Commons

So, what are some of the other downsides of a decrease in emotion recognition?

Ruffman says older men become more verbose, they talk for longer and also go off-topic.

They also have a tendency towards more extreme right-wing social attitudes, such as perpetuating the idea that a woman’s place is in the home.

In older women, a decline in emotion recognition related to a greater inability to detect lies, which led to an increased vulnerability to fraud schemes.

A Mediterranean diet promotes brain health.

A Mediterranean diet promotes brain health. Photo: Creative Commons

Ruffman says a decline in ability to recognise emotions begins in middle age, but it can be reversed. The quality of our overall diet and lifestyle can make all the difference.

Research shows that a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, olive oil, fish, fruit and vegetables relates to better social understanding in older adults, and also promotes brain health.

And regardless of age, social activities and aerobic exercise can also contribute to a healthy brain. 

“It’s been shown that if you take 70-year-olds and you put them on an aerobic exercise programme for 6 months, you can reverse brain decline,” Ruffman says.