The Last Word: A Comparison of Younger and Older Adults' Brain Responses to Reminders of Death

John R. Bluntschli, Molly Maxfield, Robin L. Grasso, Michael A. Kisley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Objectives Terror management theory (TMT) suggests increased death awareness motivates various human behaviors and defenses. Recent research reveals age differences in response to increased awareness of death, and older adults' proximity to death may contribute to these differences. In the first known investigation of attention's role in these age differences, we examined brain response associated with attention allocation for death-related stimuli. Method Younger (ages 18-28) and older (ages 61-78) adults viewed emotionally neutral, death-related negative, general negative, and positive words while recording event-related potentials (ERPs). Results Younger adults exhibited greater amplitudes in the late positive potential component of the ERP in response to death-related than negative words, whereas older adults showed the opposite pattern. Discussion Findings provide neurophysiological support for the shift in older adults' responses to death-related stimuli found in other TMT research as well as studies reporting reduced explicit death anxiety in older adults. Results also highlight the importance of considering stimuli content in studies of attention and emotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)555-563
Number of pages9
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 16 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Age differences
  • Attention
  • Emotional content
  • Event-related potentials
  • Terror management theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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