This study was designed to investigate the evolution of emotional processing over the whole adult life span as a function of stimulus arousal and participants’ gender. To this end, self-reported affective evaluation and attentional capture prompted by pleasant and unpleasant pictures varying in arousal were measured in a large sample of participants (n = 211) balanced by gender and equally spread across seven decades from 20 to 90 years. Results showed age differences only for affective evaluation of pleasant stimuli, with opposite patterns depending on stimulus arousal. As age increased, low-arousing pleasant cues (e.g. images of babies) were experienced as more pleasant and arousing by both males and females, whereas high-arousing stimuli (e.g. erotic images) were experienced as less pleasant only by females. In contrast, emotional pictures (both pleasant and unpleasant) were effective at capturing attention in a similar way across participants, regardless of age and gender. Taken together, these findings suggest that specific emotional cues prompt different subjective responses across different age groups, while basic mechanisms involved in attentional engagement towards both pleasant and unpleasant stimuli are preserved in healthy ageing.
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