THURSDAY, April 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Riddled with regret over missed opportunities? You may want to let it go. A new study suggests that being able to set aside regret might make for happier years later in life.
Researchers from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, in Germany, examined regret in 20-somethings and 60-somethings to see how it affected their emotional health.
"Regret is a powerful mental energy which can be your best friend or worst enemy. You can harness it to improve your future by learning from it, but if you let it grow inside you, it is destructive to both healthy aging and emotional resilience," said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor and head of the division of biological psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine. He was not involved in the research.
The study, published in the April 19 issue of Science, involved three groups: 21 healthy young adults (in their 20s), 20 depressed older adults and 20 healthy older adults (in their 60s).
The study participants were asked to play game-based tests on a computer. In it, they were invited to open a series of boxes -- some held money pictured as gold, while others revealed a cartoon image of a devil. After opening each box, they were allowed to decide whether they wanted to end the game or keep trying for more money. But if a devil appeared, the game ended and the player lost all the money won up to that point. At the end of each round, all of the boxes opened to show how far a participant could have played without losing.
While they played 80 rounds of the game, the participants also underwent functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans. This allowed the scientists to monitor brain activity between the three groups.
The researchers noted that during the games, when the young adults and the depressed older adults realized they'd missed chances to earn more money earlier on, they were more likely to take bigger risks later in the game. But game results early on didn't appear to affect the later behavior of the healthy older adults.
On the fMRIs, the researchers observed similar brain activity among the young and the older depressed groups in two regions of the brain: the ventral striatum, involved in feelings of regret; and the anterior cingulate cortex, linked with emotion regulation. The fMRIs indicated that the older healthy adults were experiencing less regret and were able to regulate their feelings more successfully.
Study author Stefanie Brassen and colleagues also noted changes on skin tests and heart rate in the young and older depressed players, but not in the healthy older players, when opportunities in the games were missed. The authors concluded that the study results suggest that healthy older adults may be better at reminding themselves that results are a matter of chance, while depressed seniors may blame themselves.
Doraiswamy said this study provides a window into how that process works at a neuronal level. "But it's a preliminary study because of the small sample and uncertainty about whether the laboratory games truly reflect how these individuals would behave in real-life situations of gain or loss," he said.
He added that the brain patterns seen in depressed participants, if confirmed in larger studies, could potentially help identify people who are vulnerable to late-life depression and in need of counseling.
Dr. Gary Small, director of the Longevity Center at University of California, Los Angeles, also commented on the study.
"The results are certainly in line with clinical observations that as people age, they gain a perspective that makes them more forgiving of themselves," Small said.
"I agree with the authors' point that we can change negative attitudes to more positive and adaptive ones," he added. "The fMRI results also support their interpretation by pinpointing brain regions known to control these mental experiences. Although an individual's personality or character to some extent drives attitudes, they are not cast in stone."
Small said the study suggests that young people might benefit from learning some of the wisdom that comes with aging, too.
Doraiswamy and colleagues published a paper a few months ago that showed positive acts -- such as letting go, forgiveness and being thankful -- all might reverse the brain dysfunctions underlying regret. "They could prove to be powerful therapies for building emotional wellness and treating depression," he said.
Visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging for more about healthy aging.