LIFE

Turns Out We Don't Just Get Wiser As We Get Older

We take less risks due to our changing brain structure.

28/12/2016 7:04 AM AEDT | Updated 28/12/2016 11:44 AM AEDT
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What is going on up there?

Life is filled with decisions that involve some form of uncertainty or risk.

As you get older, you may notice yourself possessing a dwindling tolerance for risky rewards. And you have probably put that down to purely getting older.

Globally, we are experiencing an unprecedented demographic shift with people over 60 expected to outnumber children in only 30 years. As societies get older, they will start making difference decisions.

But there's more to it.

According to new research published in 'Nature Communications' journal, our brain structure affects our attitudes to risk more than ageing does.

"When we age, we collect experiences and we become wiser. But we have found that chronological age does not correlate with -- or have any extra power -- over risk aptitude," co author and University of Sydney researcher Dr Agnieszka Tymula told The Huffington Post Australia.

Dr Tymula has been studying the factors that influence human decision making for years. Understanding the link between ageing and risk aversion has been a particular focus of research.

"We know that as people age, they become more risk averse and more cautious in their risk taking. We have also learnt that the volume of gray matter in an area of the brain known as the right posterior cortex becomes less dense as a natural process of ageing," Dr Tymula said.

"We became curious in understanding whether behavioural changes were a result of age itself or these changes in brain structure."

The study revealed the latter. Researchers asked more than 50 adults aged 18 to 88 to choose between a guaranteed gain of $5 or an ambiguous lottery with a payout of up to $120. Unsurprisingly, older participants preferred the guaranteed option over younger participants.

However, more surprisingly, when put to MRI testing, what best predicted this change was neuronal density -- or the thickness of gray matter in this brain region -- over age.

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Less inclined to take that lottery ticket? You have your changing brain to thank.

"Everybody ages at a different pace. Therefore, in the same way that wrinkles can be seen as an indicator of age over age itself, gray matter volume is a better predictor of your risk aptitude," Dr Tymula said.

Why is this useful?

When faced with an ageing population, Dr Tymula believes understanding the brain's structure can help us to predict how decisions will change as our brain ages -- from choosing life partners to investing in stock.

There are researchers all over the world who are trying to understand how we can cognitively intervene and affect a person's brain structure so that they can lead a healthier life.

"Globally, we are experiencing an unprecedented demographic shift with people over 60 expected to outnumber children in only 30 years. As societies get older, they will start making difference decisions that will have consequences on a political and economic level," Dr Tymula said.

"Understanding the processes that change our behaviour as we age will allow us to make these changes and prepare for them."

The paper is part of a wider global research that aims to understand and curb brain function and behaviour.

"Brain structure is something that we have control over. At this point, there are researchers all over the world who are trying to understand how we can cognitively intervene and affect a person's brain structure so that they can lead a healthier life," Dr Tymula said.

"If we can understand what each part of the brain does and connect that with everyday behaviours, we can look towards positively affect our behaviour in the future."

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