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The amazing learning power of the older mind (you too can harness it)

Learning a new skill it one of the most effective ways of keeping your brain fit and able as you head on through your 70s and 80s. Practising a new skill, as well as maintaining your physical-fitness, will keep you enjoying your retirement well in to your 90s. You brain is filled with more learning power than you think.

Most of us believe that the older mind cannot absorb information as readily as the brain of a young child, that it lacks learning power.

We assume that older people can never master complex skills such as reading and writing, or can never learn a new language or get to grips with digital skills after a lifetime of never using these tools of communication.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Later learning is powerful

The learning power of the older mind is truly amazing … whether you are 50, 60, 80 or even 90.

Priscilla ‘Gogo’ Sitienei, from Ndalat in rural Kenya, became a traditional midwife and herbalist through on-the-job training with the older midwives in her village.

As there was no school in her locality, she never had the chance to learn to read and write.

Wishing to write down her skills for the next generation, she began attending her local primary school at the age of 90 – sitting side by side with six of her great-great-grandchildren.

As she said herself: Education has no age limit.

Aleksander ‘Sasha’ Hemon, originally from Sarajevo, found himself stranded in the US on the outbreak of the Bosnian civil war in 1992 with little English and few marketable skills, despite having been a journalist in Sarajevo.

To force himself to learn English, he took jobs selling magazine subscriptions door to door as well as canvassing for Greenpeace. He also read voraciously in English, noting new words in a diary.

Within three years he had published his first story in English.

He went on to write three critically acclaimed novels, two short story collections, and a book of autobiographical essays.

These days the scientific literature is full of recent case studies of retirees performing amazing feats of memory.

For example, John Basinger, began memorising the 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words of the Second Edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost while he was in his late 50s.

It took him nine years before he could perform the entire poem from memory. Since then he has recited it in public many times, taking about three days for the complete recitation.

The latest studies from psychology and neuroscience show that these amazing achievements are not the exception.

Although you may find learning a bit more difficult as you grow older, your brain still has the ability to master many new skills, whatever your age.

 And the effort to learn a new discipline will likely enhance your overall cognitive health, not just your memory and that the learning power of the older brain is truly amazing.

So why does the idea persist that, once you are 65+, you are too old to learn new tricks?

You can blame that intellectual bum, Aristotle the Ancient Greek, who based his theories on reasoning rather than on fact-tested evidence.

Memory as a wax table

Aristotle compared human memory to a wax tablet.

At birth, the wax is hot and pliable and is ideal for the inscription of new memories. But as it cools it becomes too hard and tough for easy inscription so our memory deteriorates.

Because they were too much in awe of Aristotle to question his unproven theory, scientists believed until recently that childhood was the critical period for learning, and that by the end of this period the brain’s circuits had begun to settle, making it harder to learn more complex new skills.

But modern neuroscientists no longer believe that we lose much of our learning power as we grow older.

The concept of neuroplasticity

Neurons are the messengers in our brains, carrying information and communicating with each other, our sensory organs, and our muscles.

Up to the 1960s, researchers believed that the creation of new neurons stopped soon after birth.

But recent research shows that the adult brain can reorganize pathways, create new connections, and even create new neurons under the influence of new knowledge and experiences, thus debunking Aristotle’s unproven theory.

Scientists now believe that the human brain is very adaptable. They use the word neuroplasticity to describe the adaptability of the human brain.

Neuroplasticity was once thought to be confined to childhood, but research in the last 60 years or so has shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered (ie, are “plastic”) even during late adulthood.

There are two basic types of neuroplasticity:

  • Structural plasticity … the brain’s ability to change its physical structure as a result of learning
  • Functional plasticity … the brain’s ability to move functions from damaged areas to undamaged areas of the brain

How your brain works

The human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons or nerve cells.

Neurons communicate through synapses. A synapse is a structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron or to a muscle cell.

During the first few years of its life a child’s brain grows rapidly.

At birth, every neuron in its brain has an estimated 2,500 synapses. By the age of three, these have grown sixfold to an average of 15,000 synapses per neuron.

A typical adult has about half that number of synapses per neuron.

This is because as we gain new experiences, connections that are used frequently are strengthened and those that are rarely or never used are eliminated, a process known as synaptic pruning.

Developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, enables your brain to adapt to changes in your environment.

This plasticity is ongoing throughout life as a result of learning, experience, and the formation of memories … this is called structural plasticity.

The brain can also change or adapt as a result of brain damage … this is called functional plasticity.

Current research shows that the brain never stops changing as needs require.

For instance, if your brain is damaged by a stroke, areas of your brain associated with certain functions may not function anymore.

However, depending on how extensive the damage is, healthy parts of the brain may eventually take over those functions and the non-active functions may be restored through functional plasticity.

Variations in your brain’s plasticity

While plasticity occurs throughout our lifetimes, certain types of changes are more predominant during particular stages of our lives.

The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life as the immature brain organizes itself. Young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains.

Genetics can play a part in shaping your brain’s plasticity, as well as the interaction between your environment and genetics.

Keeping fit by exercising daily seems to be particularly important for maintaining plasticity according to Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition, a research paper published in November 2013 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews

This is because exercise helps to release neurotransmitters and hormones that are known to promote the growth of new brain cells and synapses.

Caveat … neuroplasticity is not always beneficial.

The brain may, for instance, be influenced by psychoactive substances (such as recreational drugs) or pathological conditions (illnesses) that have a detrimental effect on the brain and a person’s behaviour.

Active ageing

According to the activity theory, successful ageing occurs when older adults stay active and maintain their social interactions.

This theory takes the view that the aging process is delayed and that the quality of life is enhanced when old people remain socially active.

In other words, staying active is the key to successful ageing.

But the concept of active ageing covers both physical as well as cognitive activities.

The brain is like a muscle, and like a muscle it needs exercise to stay healthy.

The process of learning a new language or skill, and thus acquiring new information and experiences, stimulates the growth of new brain cells and prods your brain to adjust its structure to accommodate the new knowledge you have gained.

Don’t underestimate the learning power of the older mind

A simple lack of confidence seems to underlie the reluctance of retirees to believe in the learning power of the older mind.

This is especially true if they have started to fear a decline in their general cognitive powers.

Research first published in June 2015 shows that older adults often underestimate the reliability of their own memories. As a result they don’t rely on their memories as often as they could or should.

Not using your memory can lead to a decline in your ability to remember things. In fact, failure to make the best use of your mind can hasten overall cognitive decline.

In one study of memory undertaken in the USA in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, first published in June 2015, subjects had to compare a table of pairs of words (such as ‘dog’ and ‘table’) with a second list of words and identify the words in the second list that had not appeared in the original list.

The word pairs were a cinch to learn and most people could recite them after a short time.

The younger participants relied on their memory to find the additional words in the second list.

But the older subjects seldom relied on their memory but preferred to compare the words on the second list with the original list word by word even though it took more time and they too could remember the word-pairs on the first list!

It seems the older participants just did not have enough confidence to rely on their own memories, on their own learning power.

In another study, the same researchers asked subjects to work through a series of simple arithmetic calculations. Many of the same calculations appeared several times in the list.

The younger subjects soon started to remember the previous answers and began to answer the calculations quickly.

But the older participants performed the calculations from scratch each time, even those who could remember the answers. Again, they just chose not to rely on their learning power and memory.

By interviewing the older people, the researchers discovered that they tended not to rely on the memory in all sorts of circumstances, even when undertaking a task they knew how to do well.

When driving, for example, many older people rely on their GPS systems even if they are familiar with a particular route.

And each time an older adult cooks a particular dish they may refer to the written recipe even though they know very well how to cook the meal and have done so many times before.

The problem, the researchers surmised, is that their lack of confidence in their learning power could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as their memory skills (just like any muscle) need regular exercise to remain strong and will decline through lack of use.

Regaining confidence in the learning power of the older mind

If older adults could overcome their lack of confidence in their memories, their minds would become sharper overall.

This was proved by researchers at the Centre for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas.

In this study 200, subjects were divided into groups and each group was given its own programme of activities it was to undertake for 15 hours a week for three months.

The participants were given memory tests at the start and end of the three months.

The tasks the groups were given were different. Some were high-challenge tasks, others were low-challenge.

Those in the high-challenge group had to learn new skills such as digital photography or quilting by following complex instructions that would tax their attention and long-term memory.

Others were given less-challenging tasks, such as doing crossword puzzles, listening to classical music, or going on social outings.

A comparison of the memory tests at the start and end of the three-month period showed no significant improvements in memory except for those in the high-challenge group.

For example, 76% of those who were learning digital photography got a higher score in the memory test at the end of the period.

In addition, brain scans showed that those in the high-challenge group had experienced lasting changes in areas of the brain associated with attention and concentration.

These were long-lasting and were still evident in follow-up brain scans a year or two later.

The researchers concluded that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding activities (ie, getting out of your comfort zone to learn new complex skills) increases neural efficiency and boosts learning power.

Thus it is obvious that mentally-challenging activities may be neuroprotective and an important element in maintaining a healthy brain at 65+.

Brain-training computer games

The ‘brain boost’ of learning a new skill is a lot more beneficial than using ‘brain training’ computer games and apps.

Multiple studies have found that brain games, such as puzzles and crosswords, fail to bring about meaningful benefits for your brain.

Brain game apps and brain-training videos can indeed improve working memory, ie the ability to remember and retrieve information, especially when distracted.

But research has found that these games and videos do not expand other brain functions such as reasoning and problem solving.

This is because actively learning a new activity or skill engages cognitive skills such as attention to detail, short-term and long-term memory, and comprehension, as well as mathematical calculations.

How to keep your brain’s learning power fit and active

Research has long shown that continuously acquiring new knowledge keeps your brain fit and active.  

Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?, a study in the June 2014 issue of Annals of Neurology, for example, found that speaking two or more languages, even if you learned the second language as an adult, can slow age-related cognitive decline.

Question … what new skill would be best to keep your brain fit and active?

Simple answer … any skill that is unfamiliar and requires prolonged and active mental engagement from you in order for you to acquire it.

The biggest surprise you’ll find, once you get going, is how much you’ll enjoy the challenge of learning a new skill. This is what happened me when I started learning digital skills at 74 years of age.

Learning prevents social isolation

Another benefit of learning for the elderly is that, as well as boosting social confidence, it prevents social isolation as you grow older and keeps your social skills sharp.

Following a structured learning course means that you have regular interactions with other students and lecturers through discussions, group participations in Q&A, chats and discussions.

This happens naturally with offline courses in colleges and other physical venues.

Most online structured courses of any worth maintain an online community where students can discuss what they are learning, as well as philosophising on life in general and giving each other a leg up as needed, thus delivering a great sense of belonging.

In addition, some of these courses are interactive and allow students to question lecturers and mentors in a live setting, again dispelling any feelings of isolation.

My personal story … how I boosted my learning power

I took up learning digital skills as a way to supplement my less than generous government pension.

Then, the more I learned, the more interested I became, and the study of the ins-and-outs of our digital world, especially the communications and marketing aspects, really began to enthral me.

When I realised that I could use my new-found skills to provide people with solutions for their problems and help them better their lives in practical concrete ways, my enthusiasm reached boiling point and I found that I could apply myself to whatever I was doing for 8 to 10 hours a day without faltering.

That’s more than most people in their mid-70s would try to do I’d bet.

I’m absolutely sure my learning power bloomed due to the efforts I was making to learn digital skills.

I found that remembering facts and techniques was becoming easier as time went by and I began practising what I was learning.

I also found inner peace and contentment, a feeling that I was doing something well worthwhile.

The learning power take-away

The brain is highly plastic, and learning new skills will have beneficial cognitive effects on your brain.

Research over the last half-century shows that, throughout your life, your brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones as it adapts to new experiences, learns new information, and creates new memories.

Thanks to advances in scanning technology that allows them to look under the hood, researchers are able to see what’s going on in the brain’s inner workings and how its structure changes as required.

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that people are not limited to the mental abilities they are born with, that these can be improved upon, and that even damaged brains are often quite capable of remarkable rehabilitation.

But the benefits of learning new skills or other taxing knowledge, do not come easily at first. You need to really want to learn.

At first, you need to work hard to apply yourself … until the amazing learning power of your brain kicks in and gets up to speed.

Above all, you need to be passionate about improving your cognitive skills in order to guarantee yourself a few decades of enjoyable active ageing.

Remember … retirement is about enjoyment!

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