Why are senior citizens more social?

Older members of the population produce more happiness inducing dopamine...
26 April 2022

Interview with 

Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate University




Oxytocin is the brain's hug hormone. It helps us bond with our babies and lovers and makes us more inclined to trust others. Interestingly, as Claremont Graduate University's, Paul Zak, has been showing the older we get the more of it we make and this he speculates means we tend to be happier with our lot. As we grow older, it also means we feel a stronger urge to connect with others. Bearing this in mind, our own James Tytko experienced the sudden urge to call someone very special to him...

James' Grandmother - Hello?

James - Hi grandma. How are you?

James' Grandmother - Who? I'm all right.

James - It's James.

James' Grandmother - I know James, how are you?

James - I just wanted to call to see how you were.

James' Grandmother - It's very nice of you James. Thank you very much.

James - No, no worries at all.

James' Grandmother - I'm not too bad, but you don't sound like James.

James - Why'd you say that it would be because I'm on the studio microphone, probably. Paul Hacken his team have been showing that as you age your brain trains to release more oxytocin and through further reinforcement from positive social interactions, you have further desire for these behaviors. I asked him how they managed to show this.

Paul - Many neuroactive chemicals like testosterone, estrogen decline with age. We want to see what the release of oxytocin would do. So we measured the change in oxytocin, in blood, after a short video, people aged 18 to 99, and then related that change in oxytocin to a variety of behaviors to understand not only is the release changing with age, but is it affecting behavior? And in fact, we found that the older people were, the more oxytocin they released and the more helping behaviors they engaged in.

James - You said you were showing a video to a hundred people. What exactly was the video? And how did you know that it was a sort of oxytocin inducer.

Paul - There's a video we've studied extensively in my lab for the last 15 years, and many other people now have used it as well. It's a really consistent way to induce the brain to make oxytocin. There's a video of a father and his two year old son, the son's dying of brain cancer. It's super sad. It's very sweet and warm. And then we gave people in addition a chance, since we were torturing them by drawing their blood, we paid them. We give them a chance to donate some of the earnings to the research hospital that had produced the video. Then we went further, but we also looked at the change oxytocin related to previous prosocial behaviors. In this case in the last year, how much people had donated money, time and goods to charity. And it's the first time we've shown the acute production of oxytocin is related to retrospective prosocial behaviors. And that's important because it tells us that the change in oxytocin may in fact, be tuning up based on your previous history of behavior. In other words, you can train your brain to release more oxytocin by engaging in more helping behaviors. So there's a key takeaway here for, for younger people or people of any age, which is if you have a habit of connecting to others, of helping others, then you're training yourself potentially to be a better oxytocin releaser. The more you release oxytocin, the greater satisfaction in life people have.

James - We've just gone past Easter and and pass over, Ramadan's still ongoing. So do you find that your work is sort of consistent with these religious traditions?

Paul - I think religious traditions have survived for thousands of years because there's some ancient wisdom captured by them. And what we're finding here is the underlying neurologic basis for that ancient wisdom, which is that we can live more fulfilled, happier, more satisfied lives by being a service to others. Oxytocin does a couple of interesting things in the brain. It reduces physiologic stress. So that means we have potentially better cardiovascular fitness. It also improves the immune system. So by serving others, by connecting to others, we're actually improving our own mental health, but physical help as well.

James' Grandmother - You hear that now James?

James - I do hear you.

James' Grandmother - I could smack your bottom.

James - You could.

James' Grandmother - I could James.

James - Only if I deserved it. I hope.

James' Grandmother - So. Goodbye then James behave yourself.

James - I will do have a nice day.

James' Grandmother - God bless James. Bye bye, dear.

Harry - Wasn't that really sweet James Tytko grandmother there. James was also talking to Paul Zak that study was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.


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