Despite dopamine's significant role in models of value-based decision-making and findings demonstrating loss of dopamine function in aging, evidence of systematic changes in decision-making over the life span remains elusive. Previous studies attempting to resolve the neural basis of age-related alteration in decision-making have typically focused on physical age, which can be a poor proxy for age-related effects on neural systems. There is growing appreciation that aging has heterogeneous effects on distinct components of the dopamine system within subject in addition to substantial variability between subjects. We propose that some of the conflicting findings in age-related effects on decision-making may be reconciled if we can observe the underlying dopamine components within individuals. This can be achieved by incorporating in vivo imaging techniques including positron emission tomography (PET) and neuromelanin-sensitive MR. Further, we discuss how affective factors may contribute to individual differences in decision-making performance among older adults. Specifically, we propose that age-related shifts in affective attention ("positivity effect") can, in some cases, counteract the impact of altered dopamine function on specific decision-making processes, contributing to variability in findings. In an effort to provide clarity to the field and advance productive hypothesis testing, we propose ways in which in vivo dopamine imaging can be leveraged to disambiguate dopaminergic influences on decision-making, and suggest strategies for assessing individual differences in the contribution of affective attentional focus.
Keywords: PET; aging; decision-making; dopamine; positivity effect.