A new study conducted by the University College London (UCL) suggests that the tendency of older people to take fewer risks in life may be influenced by a gradual drop in dopamine levels in their brain.

Dr. Robb Rutledge and his colleagues at UCL sought to determine what exactly causes older people to make less risky decisions in life.

They analyzed data collected from 25,000 individuals who were asked to use a smartphone app known as The Great Brain Experiment. The app had participants play through various trials where they had to make risky decisions to score points. The goal was to earn as many points as they could by the time they finished the game.

During the "gain" trials, participants were asked to choose between earning a certain number of points, earning a 50/50 chance of getting more points, or earning no points at all.

The "loss" trials, on the other hand, had the players make similar choices but, instead of earning points with every decision, they were to lose them.

A third set of tasks, known as the "mixed" trials, had the players choose between earning no points or taking a gamble, which could have them earn or lose points.

By the end of the experiment, the researchers discovered that older members of the group (individuals who were 60 to 69 years old) were less inclined to make risky decisions to earn points, compared to the younger members of the group (18 to 24 years old).

These older players only gambled in 64 percent of the gain trials, while the younger players took risks in 72 percent of these trials.

However, both older and younger players chose to take risks in roughly 56 percent of the app's loss trials and roughly 67 percent of its mixed trials.

The researchers also used mathematical equations to find out just how much a reduction in the participants' dopamine levels would impact their ability to make decisions throughout the experiment.

"A loss of dopamine may explain why older people are less attracted to the promise of potential rewards," Rutledge pointed out.

"Decisions involving potential losses were unaffected and this may be because different processes important for losses are not affected by aging."

According to the researchers, their findings can help explain the difference between how older people and younger people make their decisions, particularly when these could affect their lives.

One example of this is when political campaigners choose to use negative messaging to help convince older people and use more optimistic approaches, with an emphasis on greater rewards, to convince younger people to vote in their favor.

The study shows how a reduction in dopamine levels because of aging could make individuals less likely to respond to positive approaches compared to when they were younger.

The findings of the study are featured in the journal Current Biology.

Photo: Joanna Orpia | Flickr 

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