Age-Related Changes in Physiological Reactivity to a Stress Task: A Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Study
Aging is associated with changes in biological functions, such as reduced cardiovascular responses to stressful tasks. However, less is known about the influence of age on the reactivity of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to acute stressors. Therefore, this study aimed to investigate the effects of a computerized-controlled stress task on the PFC and autonomic system activity in a sample of older and younger adults. We recruited a total of 55 healthy, right-handed persons (26 older adults with mean age 69.5, SD 5.8 years; and 29 younger adults with mean age 23.8, SD 3.3 years); groups were balanced for sex. Tasks included a control and an experimental condition: during both tasks individuals had to solve simple mental arithmetic problems. For the experimental condition, all participants were faced with a time limit that induced significant stress. Physiological indexes were collected continuously during the entire procedure using a 2-channel near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and an ECG monitoring system. Repeated measures ANOVA were used to assess changes in hemoglobin concentrations, and changes in both heart rate and performance outcomes. NIRS, ECG and performance data showed a significant interaction between the group and condition. Post-hoc analyses evidenced a significant increase in heart rate and Oxy-Hb concentration in the bilateral PFC between the control and experimental condition only in the younger group. Post-hoc analyses of behavioral data showed lower percentages of correct responses and higher response times in the older group. In summary, these results suggested that cardiovascular and cortical reactivity to stress tasks are a function of age. Older individuals seem to be characterized by blunted physiological reactivity, suggestive of impaired adaptive responses to acute stressors. Therefore, future studies should investigate the underlying physiological mechanisms of prefrontal and cardiovascular changes related to aging.
KeywordsOlder adults Younger adults NIRS HR Reactivity