While normal aging is associated with a marked decline in cognitive abilities, such as memory and executive functions, recent evidence suggests that control processes involved in regulating responses to emotional stimuli may remain well-preserved in the elderly. However, neither the precise nature of these preserved control processes, nor their domain-specificity with respect to comparable non-emotional control processes, are currently well-established. Here, we tested the hypothesis of domain-specific preservation of emotional control in the elderly by employing two closely matched behavioral tasks that assessed the ability to shield the processing of task-relevant stimulus information from competition by task-irrelevant distracter stimuli that could be either non-emotional or emotional in nature. The efficacy of non-emotional versus emotional task-set shielding, gauged via the 'conflict adaptation effect', was compared between cohorts of healthy young adults, healthy elderly adults, and individuals diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's disease (PRAD), age-matched to the elderly subjects. It was found that, compared to the young adult cohort, the healthy elderly displayed deficits in task-set shielding in the non-emotional but not in the emotional task, whereas PRAD subjects displayed impaired performance in both tasks. These results provide new evidence that healthy aging is associated with a domain-specific preservation of emotional control functions, specifically, the shielding of a current task-set from interference by emotional distracter stimuli. This selective preservation of function supports the notion of partly dissociable affective control mechanisms, and may either reflect different time-courses of degeneration in the neuroanatomical circuits mediating task-set maintenance in the face of non-emotional versus emotional distracters, or a motivational shift towards affective processing in the elderly. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd.
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