The chemical dopamine drives a lot of our behavior, including risky behavior. How might our taste for risk change as dopamine declines as we age? Our correspondent describes why we experience a “dopamine dip” and what it means for you and your clients.


Since the beginning of our species, humans have tended to do what feels good. Three hundred thousand years ago, when homo sapiens first emerged in Africa, they roamed the continent’s rich ecosystem, seeking what they needed for survival: food, water, sexual partners, social companions and social cooperation.

What drove this continuous searching behavior?


When the dopamine neurons in our brain are activated, whatever’s being encountered at the time, compels us to be attracted to it again in the future. Thus, as ancient humans foraged in the wild, food-related stimuli, like a particular place, or a particular object…drew us back to these things that signaled “Food!”

Dopamine does its work through a form of unconscious learning, teaching the brain to recognize environmental cues; sights, sounds, smells, feelings…that lead us back to the thing that first excited the reward pathway.

These days, most of us do not have to forage for food to survive. Yet dopamine, “the molecule of more” is still with us…motivating us to seek out an entire variety of rewarding experiences and stimuli that we perceive as beneficial or pleasurable. Dopamine continues to play a fundamental role in how behaviors are learned and repeated, influencing a wide range of psychological and physical processes.

Dopamine drops 50% as we age

What’s also noteworthy is that our dopamine levels start declining after we reach the age of 45. By as much as 13% every decade. Which means that, when we’re in our 80s and 90s, we’ll have 50% less dopamine than in our younger years.

This dopamine drop wasn’t as much a factor for humans 300,000 years ago, when life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described it. Most humans didn’t live past the age of 20 anyway. Nor was the dopamine dip much of an issue in 1900, when we lived to be 45 years or so, on average.

Yet these days, when life expectancy is 73 years old, and many of us will live far longer, we need to pay attention to our decreasing dopamine levels.

Why dopamine declines

Let’s break down the factors contributing to the decrease in dopamine levels as we age:

  1. Loss of dopamine-producing neurons: As we get older, some of the neurons in our brain that produce dopamine start to die off. This is similar to how hair might start to gray as we age—it’s a natural process of aging that reduces the amount of dopamine our brains can make.
  2. Decrease in dopamine receptors: Our brain has special spots called receptors where dopamine needs to attach to work properly. As we age, the number of these receptors decreases. Think of it like having fewer and fewer receivers available to catch a football; even if you throw the same number of footballs, fewer will be caught.
  3. Changes in dopamine transporters: These are like shuttle buses that carry dopamine to where it needs to go in the brain. With age, we have fewer of these buses, which means dopamine doesn’t get around as efficiently as it used to.
  4. Increase in dopamine-breaking enzymes: There’s an increase in the activity of enzymes that break down dopamine in the brain as we age. Imagine a paper shredder that becomes more efficient as you get older, shredding documents (in this case, dopamine) that you might still need.
  5. Interactions with other brain changes: Dopamine doesn’t work in isolation. Changes in other chemicals and brain structures that also occur with age can affect how well dopamine functions. It’s like being part of a team where not only you are getting older and slower, but so are your teammates, affecting the overall performance.

These factors together mean that as we get older, our brains produce less dopamine and are less efficient at using what is produced. This can affect everything from our mood and motivation to our ability to move and think quickly.

How the dopamine dip affects financial advisors

This decline can lead to several noticeable effects in the regulation of our mood, motivation, and movement. Older adults might experience reduced enthusiasm for activities they once enjoyed, which is often mistaken for normal aging or mild depression. There can also be a decrease in cognitive agility, making tasks that require quick thinking or learning new skills more challenging.

Physically, diminished dopamine levels are linked with slower movements and reduced coordination, commonly seen in conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Overall, this decrease in dopamine can affect an older person’s quality of life, influencing their emotional, mental and physical well-being.

Implications for your clients

For financial advisors, understanding the impact of dopamine decline on behavior is crucial, especially in managing the finances of older clients. As dopamine levels drop, older adults often exhibit a reduced willingness to take risks. While this can lead to increased safety and stability, it may also result in excessive risk aversion, potentially leading to social isolation, decreased physical activity and cognitive decline.

Financial advisors need to be particularly mindful of these changes. Advising clients to adopt a balanced approach to risk can help them avoid unnecessary losses while also ensuring they do not miss out on opportunities that could enhance their quality of life.

Moreover, risk tolerance is not static; it can change over time due to various factors such as age, financial circumstances and market conditions. Regularly reviewing and adjusting the client’s risk profile is essential. This involves reassessing the client’s financial goals, investment horizon, and risk tolerance through updated questionnaires or discussions, ensuring that the investment strategy remains aligned with their current situation.


Take the next step with your clients

It is essential for financial advisors to encourage clients, particularly older ones, to engage in activities that involve manageable risks. This can include moderated physical exercise, social engagements and mentally stimulating hobbies. These activities provide the necessary stimulation to maintain cognitive, social and physical health without disproportionate risk.

Financial advisors must consider the broader implications of aging on dopamine levels and consequently, on decision-making processes. By fostering an understanding of these changes, advisors can better support their clients in maintaining a fulfilling and balanced lifestyle in their later years. Engaging in continuous education about the neuroscience of aging will empower advisors to offer advice that truly aligns with the evolving needs of their clients.

As we all aim to better support the aging population, let us commit to promoting a nuanced understanding of risk, encouraging activities that balance safety with necessary engagement, and fostering environments that enhance rather than limit the potential for joy and satisfaction in later years.


May 6, 2024 / By Chris Holman via HM