Post No.: 0430
Due to general declining brain neuroplasticity as we age – which means that we’ll find it harder for new lessons to stick in our brains – it generally doesn’t get easier to learn new knowledge or skills as we become elderly.
…But it never becomes impossible to learn something new whilst we’re still alive. It just requires more hard work and repetition.
For instance, learning a new language gets increasingly more difficult as we grow older, especially as one passes adolescence, but it’s hardly just down to decreasing neuroplasticity – adults usually have less desire or need to learn a second or third language, and have other responsibilities and interests, hence put in less effort to learn another language and take fewer risks to try. First-generation immigrants often get their children to translate things for them when needed. If they only need to know enough to be able to communicate with their parents then second-generation immigrants might not feel the need to continue learning their parents’ mother tongue to a fluent level as they grow older (especially reading and writing the language) because few people in their life in the country they live in speak that language. And English and American people on holiday can usually count on at least someone where they go understanding English if they only venture around the usual tourist hotspots, so can be lazy in learning another language!
Meanwhile, children are more forced to learn another language because of school, and have more motivation to learn a local language because of their local peers. Yet there are plenty of cases of adults of nearly all ages managing to learn new languages, or other types of skills, to a highly proficient level. It’s like people can learn to write clearly and effortlessly with their less-dominant hand if they become motivated to, or forced to, such as if they were to lose the use of their dominant hand in an accident. Modern technologies can also help, such as for learning to play a new musical instrument.
This means that old habits can be broken and new habits can be formed at any age too. Because all we mentally are – all our cognitions and memories – are to do with physical structures and processes in the brain, it has been hypothesised that it takes ~3 months of concerted, regular practice to change or learn a new habit based on the rate of cellular renewal.
As a side note – neuroscience has shown that whether reading a logographic-based (assumed to be more visual e.g. Chinese) or phoneme-based (assumed to be more auditory e.g. Spanish) language, the same parts of the brain are involved, although to slightly varying degrees. This tentatively suggests that all languages ought to be as easy or difficult to learn as each other despite our preconceptions. (However, in contrast to hearing and speaking a language, this doesn’t necessarily mean that reading and writing is quite as innate for humans because written language has only existed for the last few thousand years. Most languages in the world don’t actually have a writing system at all. So reading and writing is more likely an adaptation, like riding a bicycle or driving a car.)
Genetics are only a part of the picture of what shapes our full fluffy potential. So unless someone suffers from serious brain damage (and even then there could still be hope) – it’s always possible to learn new things and change one’s habits.
Of course, don’t forget that a healthy lifestyle also has many mental, cognitive and emotional benefits. Directly training the brain is important, but being physically fit, eating healthily, not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol and so forth are also incredibly important. Physical exercise for the elderly is a very efficient way for maintaining cognitive performance – being more physically active increases blood flow, including to the brain, and this has a positive effect on ageing and cognition. If one continues to be regularly physically active, continues to actively challenge one’s brain and continues to have responsibilities when elderly, one can slow down or possibly fend off the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Even as parts of the brain tissue degenerate – new neural pathways can make up for lost ones and find new solutions (‘cognitive reserve’).
This is perhaps what the phrase ‘retirement is a killer’ really means. Although the elderly should get to relax, they shouldn’t relax too much – the elderly still need purpose (e.g. helping to look after grandchildren) and they still need some challenges and even goals or ambitions in life, although they don’t need to be about work.
Note that ‘brain training games’ like crosswords or Sudoku won’t (alone) prevent dementia, and mental decline is pretty much inevitable as we grow elderly whatever we do – but ‘use it or lose it’ still arguably applies in the sense that the more we’ve used our brains throughout our lives, the higher the point we’ll have to begin to fall from. It’s the same with our bone density. (It’s also kind of like the more we’ve saved for our pensions, the greater the pot we’ll have to begin to spend from, even though we’re going to inevitably decrease that pot by a bit every year once we’ve retired from earning.)
So the message seems to be don’t leave it too late before you really care for your brain, and body – the habits you instil and the efforts you put in when aged 30 will reap benefits for you when you’re aged 70. There are many cases of professors and scientists who are still intellectually active and relevant in their fields in their 80s and older, and that’s not because they suddenly took up brain training games when they reached 65 – it’s likely because they’ve been challenging their brains throughout their lives. They’re still trying to keep abreast with all of the new discoveries and cutting-edge research and technologies in their fields, for instance.
When we become skilled at performing a particular activity, we actually exhibit less brain activation compared to when we were a novice at doing that same activity. This is because our brains have rewired to become more efficient at performing that specific task. A task feels – and is – more effortless to complete when we’re skilled at doing it compared to when we’re not skilled at doing it. This suggests that if we wish to keep challenging our brains as we grow older, it’s not so much about doing a particular prescribed activity but trying a personally new activity. So if you have been knitting or playing golf for many decades and are highly skilled at doing these activities, then knitting or playing golf might not continue to present a sufficiently novel mental challenge for you. Absolutely carry on doing these things if you still enjoy doing them (for if we don’t continue using a skill then we’ll eventually lose it) but also try something new, such as, perhaps, origami or ballroom dancing, for example. And then try something new again after you’ve become good at doing those things, and so on.
Keep participating in regular social interactions, such as with family, friends or clubs, too. Loneliness or isolation is the main reason why suicide rates, amongst men at least, start to increase again at the age of around 70. Video calls are great but face-to-face interactions for the elderly are even better (when possible).
For the elderly or anyone at any age, physical activities like dancing require more cognitive challenge than metronomic exercises such as walking on a treadmill, and so could help slow down cognitive decline better. Walking outside is also better than walking on a treadmill because of needing to keep mentally a little sharper to tackle uneven pavements, dodging tree branches and so forth.
Exercise increases nitric oxide levels, serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, and in turn blood flow to the brain, which may possibly help fight Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. (Exercising in cold environment conditions can enhance the blood flow even further.) It’s again clear that the elderly should keep habitually doing physical activities and generally ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to their physical and cognitive abilities, to slow down their physical and cognitive decline.
Continuing with weight-bearing activities as one ages is beneficial for one’s bones. There is therefore probably a dilemma when it comes to helping elderly people with carrying their shopping or whatever – the weight-bearing exercise does them good in the bigger picture, but it’s nice to help them. I suppose if they look like they’re struggling or if it’s just a one-off then help, but if they’re okay and happy then let them reap the benefits of the exercise. Helping the elderly to take it too easy could hasten their decline and increase their injury risk in the longer run – the short-term kindness might not serve their long-term physical health. Similarly, don’t remove all responsibilities from their lives unless they can no longer be depended upon. No one wants to feel useless and superfluous to needs – this won’t be good for their mental health.
There is a pattern that in cultures with the highest average life expectancies, people continue to be active with purpose. It’s perhaps not strange that these people are still active and wake up every day with a purpose but rather it’s strange that people cease to be so active in other places where the state of lazy retirement seems to be what people are ultimately looking forwards to. If you want to feel younger then do what younger people do! The elderly should not be made to do 9-5-type work (unless they personally want to) but they still need to exercise, use their bodies and use their brains, otherwise risk an earlier death or at least a lower quality of remaining life.
To continue learning when older, you might need some motivation though. Many people who have an interest in, and end up studying, a particular subject do so because they have personal questions they want answering pertaining to that subject. For example, a lot of people who choose to study psychology do so in order to try to understand and find answers about themselves or about a loved one. There’s no greater motivation to learn something than a personally meaningful motivation. This kind of intrinsic motivation compels us to learn or do something without extrinsic furry carrots or fuzzy sticks. And, for many people, there’s no greater personal motivator than the visceral and personal threat of mortality! When seriously ill, people become more motivated to learn about what options for treatment they have to get back to fair health, and they may finally start to change their habits and live a healthier life.
But perhaps we shouldn’t riskily leave it so late before we start to learn the things we want to learn, or need to learn in order to change our unhealthy habits, before we die though! Yet be rest assured that we can learn anything and do new things at any age – it just takes some desire and dedication.
Woof! My aim is that you’ll always be able to teach this dog new tricks!