Aging is associated with well-recognized alterations in brain function, some of which are reflected in cognitive decline.
While less appreciated, there is also considerable evidence of socioemotional changes later in life, some of which are beneficial.
It is known that chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol exert neurotoxic effects on the aging brain with negative impacts on cognition and socioemotional functioning.
In contrast, the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone appear to have neuroprotective effects in cognitive aging but may decrease prosociality.
Advances in research and technology have extended the human lifespan. Consequently, old and very old individuals are a growing segment of society, and the question of how to maintain or augment cognitive and socioemotional functioning in older age has become an issue of great political, societal, and academic interest.
This interest has been further spurred by evidence that some individuals fare better than others in their ability to remain cognitively, socially, and affectively engaged as they age. These improved capacities are often associated with reduced morbidity and mortality.
An increased understanding of the interplay between the myriad factors that contribute to individual differences in aging trajectories has the potential to inform strategies toward amelioration of negative effects and promotion of life quality among older adults.
Age-Related Change in Cognitive and Socioemotional Functioning
As people age, they typically experience declines in various cognitive functions. Though there is notable heterogeneity in patterns of change in cognitive function both across and within individuals, studies consistently document age-related decreases in processing speed, reasoning ability, and various memory components.
Alongside the broad cognitive aging literature, there is growing evidence of age-related change in socioemotional domains. While some of these changes are characterized by decline, other socioemotional functions remain stable or even improve with age.
For example, older compared to young adults are worse in interpreting facial cues related to emotion or trust. Older adults also show increased difficulty with memory for social and emotional information such as names, faces, and negative emotional pictures or text.
In contrast, the experience of positive affect increases with age. Also, older adults become better at some aspects of emotion regulation and emotional problem solving and often show increased wisdom-related knowledge.
Hormones like cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and oxytocin are operating throughout the body and brain and have an influence on cognition and socioemotional functioning in older adults.
In particular, cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as the end product of a coordinated hormonal cascade. Estrogen is released in concert with progesterone by the ovaries and oxytocin and prolactin by the pituitary, with similar implications for behavior.
Examination of these particular hormones provides an interesting contrast in that they mediate responses seen as being antithetical (i.e., cortisol and oxytocin) or important for differences between the sexes (i.e., estrogen and testosterone).
Cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and oxytocin constitute active regulators of domains important to the aging process (i.e., stress response, emotional support/bonding, biological transition to older age).
The Interplay of Hormones, Brain, and Behavior in Aging
One useful way of conceptualizing the interplay between brain processes, hormonal activity, and behavior is to think of the brain as an endocrine organ. Within this model, the brain both regulates the production of hormones (through the hypothalamus and pituitary gland), and is itself a target for steroid and sex hormones that cross the blood-brain barrier and exert effects in the central nervous system and downstream regions.
As such, hormones play a central role in physiologic processes and initiation of signaling pathways responsible for the development, aging, growth, immunity, reproduction, and behavior.
The level and function of many hormones change with age and, as a consequence, produce a number of psychological and physiological alterations. Typical changes are reduced secretion from peripheral glands and modifications in the central mechanisms controlling hormone release.
This includes a reduction in inhibitory systems and dampening of circadian rhythms. These age-related changes in the endocrine system are complex and differ for specific hormones due to a variety of influences, some of which are concomitant with aging.
Among those influences are sociodemographic (e.g., ethnicity, social status), lifestyle (e.g., level of physical activity, body mass index, smoking initiation or cessation, diet), and psychological factors (e.g., overall health status, perceived stress, supportive relationships, social integration.
For instance, in older adults, both physical and psychological changes brought about by body mass index, smoking, unemployment, and loss of a partner were associated with accelerations in individual declines in testosterone levels, while psychological factors like self-esteem and perceived stress contributed to individual differences in cortisol.
Age-related hormonal change can also be a result of pathology associated with disease risk or decreased longevity.
Changes in the brain and behavior are rarely attributable to the actions of a single hormone. Rather, they reflect aggregate and widespread changes across multiple hormonal systems, which themselves have recursive interactions with each other.
Therefore, examination of the combined effects of multiple hormones that act simultaneously throughout the body and brain is necessary.
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