Uni of Reading, Investigating resilience and heart rate variabilityJasmine Raw, Dr Louise Leyland, Dr Carien van Reekum and Dr Michiko Sakaki


This study is being performed at the University of Reading, UK to look further into the relationship between age, heart rate variability (HRV) and the ability to regulate emotions and emotional responses to situations.

We know from previous research (e.g. the effect of age on happiness; Mrozcek & Kolarz, 1998) that older adults typically interpret emotional items more positively, when compared to younger adults. Furthermore, older adults have demonstrated a preference for positive over negative information in both attention and memory (Mather and Carstensen, 2003; 2006). Overall this suggests that emotion regulation is preserved with age and interestingly, seems to be the case despite the number of adverse events that occur with growing old (e.g., health problems, bereavements, and adapting to changing life styles).

Regardless of our age though, when we encounter emotional information, it not only changes our subjective emotional state like our mood, but also our bodily reactions via our nervous system (Sakaki et al., 2016).  Our heart rate for example, tends to increase when we encounter something threatening or negative.

Although an increase in heart rate can be an indicator of our body reacting to emotional stimuli, a more useful way of measuring our ability to regulate our emotions when confronted with emotional items is using heart rate variability (Heart Rate Variability as an Index of Regulated Emotional Responding Appelhans & Luecken, 2006). HRV is the variation in the time intervals between heart beats and it is thought that higher HRV i.e. a greater variance in the time intervals between heart beats, is an indication of good health (Thayer and Sternberg, 2006) and higher HRV has been associated with lower anxiety (Dishman et al. 2000) and better emotion regulation.

However, we know that as we get older our cardiovascular capacity declines and our HRV typically decreases (Bonnemeier et al. 2003). This would suggest that as we get older, our ability to regulate our emotions also becomes worse. Yet, older adults typically report higher levels of mental well-being and some studies argue that emotional regulation actually gets better with age (Scheibe, Speiler and Kuba, 2016).

Therefore, it seems that the relationship between HRV, age and emotion regulation is still unclear. In this study, we look at the interaction between HRV, age and emotion regulation by measuring physiological responses, HRV and brain activity when participants are presented with emotional stimuli. The study, which is starting late 2017, will use the ithlete finger sensor and a specially designed version of the ithlete Precision Pulse app to collect data.

We will be posting here again to update on progress and study findings.