An older man organizes grocery baskets filled with produce and prepared food during charity activities.Share on Pinterest
A recent study links neurochemical oxytocin with empathy and life satisfaction in older people. INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images
  • Older adults tend to engage more in helping behaviors and are more satisfied with their lives than younger people.
  • The brain chemical oxytocin is associated with empathy and helping behaviors, and changes in oxytocin levels could explain these age-related changes.
  • A new study shows that older people show a larger increase in oxytocin levels in response to situations that evoke an emotional response than younger individuals.
  • This larger oxytocin response may explain why older individuals are more satisfied with life and engage in more helping behaviors.

A new study published in the journal Frontier in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that older individuals tend to release more oxytocin in response to social situations that arouse empathy. A larger oxytocin response was also associated with greater levels of helping behaviors and increased satisfaction with life.

These findings may explain why older individuals donate more to charity and perform more social work.

“People who released the most oxytocin in the experiment were not only more generous to charity but also performed many other helping behaviors. This is the first time a distinct change in oxytocin has been related to past prosocial behaviors,” said Dr. Paul Zak, the study author and a professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Oxytocin is a hormone responsible for uterus contractions during childbirth, lactation, and reproductive behaviors. Oxytocin also modulates the transmission of signals between brain cells and is involved in modulating social behaviors. Experiments in humans suggest that brain oxytocin reduces anxiety and promotes trust, cooperation, empathy, generosity, and social bonding.

Studies have shown that older individuals tend to donate more money to charity and are more likely to engage in volunteer work than younger people. A potential explanation for this increase in prosocial behaviors could be greater empathy in response to social situations in older people than in younger people.

Given the association between oxytocin and empathy, the study’s authors wanted to understand whether oxytocin mediated increased prosocial behaviors in old age.

The present study’s authors recruited 103 individuals between 18 and 99 years old. Researchers divided the participants into three groups: young (18 to 35 years), middle-aged (36 to 65 years ), or older (over 65 years) adults.

They asked the participants to watch a short emotional video of a father narrating his feelings about coping with the imminent demise of his two-year-old son with terminal brain cancer.

The researchers collected blood samples from the participants before and after watching the video to measure oxytocin levels. Previous studies have shown that changes in blood and brain oxytocin levels tend to be correlated, allowing the researchers to estimate changes in brain oxytocin levels using blood samples.

The researchers found that older individuals showed a larger increase in oxytocin levels after viewing the video than younger individuals.

After viewing the video, the participants were given a monetary reward for participating in an unrelated study and the option to donate part of the reward to a medical charity.

The researchers found that individuals with a larger increase in blood oxytocin levels were likely to donate a greater fraction of the reward money.

Furthermore, older individuals donated a larger fraction of the reward money to the charity. Surveys conducted during the study revealed that older individuals also spent greater time volunteering and donated more to charity in the previous year.

Notably, a small increase in oxytocin levels in older individuals was associated with a similar donation amount as younger individuals with a larger oxytocin response.

The study also found that aging resulted in a more profound increase in donations to charity in older individuals with a smaller oxytocin response than a larger one. The findings suggest that aging and oxytocin response levels together influence the amounts donated to charity.

Consistent with other studies, the researchers found that older individuals were more likely to participate in religious activities and had a greater sense of satisfaction with life. Studies have shown that older, more religious adults engage more in charity and volunteer work and express greater life satisfaction.

The researchers found that a larger oxytocin response to the video stimulus was associated with a greater sense of satisfaction with life, participation in religious activities, and increased levels of empathy and gratitude.

The authors cautioned that the study only correlates oxytocin release and prosocial behaviors and other traits. The findings are especially relevant since there is a bidirectional relationship between oxytocin release and prosocial behaviors, with engagement in prosocial behaviors associated with a subsequent increase in oxytocin levels.

The authors also noted that the study involved a small number of participants residing in California. Hence, more research involving a larger number of participants representing the broader demographic needs to be conducted.

Other studies also suggest that using intranasal sprays to deliver oxytocin can improve mood and cognitive function, especially in older men. Although there is an interest in the therapeutic use of intranasal oxytocin, the effects of oxytocin vary by context and among individuals.

Dr. Natalie Ebner, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida, noted in a lecture, “There is a lot of evidence that oxytocin doesn’t always work the same way. It depends a little bit on what kind of situation you are in, if it’s a positive social situation it does one thing, if it’s a hostile situation suddenly it increases aggressivity. So there are a lot of interesting manipulations we can do by looking closer at contextual factors and we’re starting to see a lot is that not everyone responds in the same way.”