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Associations between Alexithymia and Executive Function in Younger and Older Adults

The prevalence of alexithymia, a condition characterized by difficulties identifying and verbalizing one’s emotions, increases across the lifespan, with older adults reporting greater alexithymic features than young and middle-aged adults. This late-life increase in alexithymia may be the product of age-related decline in prefrontal brain circuitry implicated in emotional awareness and executive processes, notably in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). There is a dearth of research on the link between executive function and alexithymia in healthy adults. This study determined associations between alexithymia and executive function in healthy younger and older adults. Higher alexithymia scores were predicted to be associated with poorer performance on measures of executive function, specifically one that taps into ACC function (i.e., verbal fluency). Sixty-five young adults and 44 older adults completed the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale, three executive function tasks (Verbal Fluency, Design Fluency, and Trail Making), assessments of memory and verbal ability, and a self-report measure of depressive symptoms. Greater total alexithymia and difficulties describing feelings (a dimension of alexithymia) were associated with poorer verbal fluency, accounting for age, gender, and depressive symptoms, in the full sample and in older adults, but not in young adults. Findings support the theoretical model that alexithymia is associated with age-related decline in frontal circuitry – possibly specific to declines in ACC functioning. Results provide insight into the possible origins of emotion self-awareness deficits in older adulthood.