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Lifestyle: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks … not so fast.

22 Nov 2018

For a long time, it has been assumed that the ability of the brain to change itself based upon new experiences, peaks at a young age and then gradually decreases as one gets older. This ability to change is known as ‘brain plasticity’.

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

Well, thanks to advances in brain research, there is mounting evidence that the human brain retains its plasticity over a lifetime. Just Google ‘aging and brain plasticity’ for all the in-depth research.

Studies show that older people learn at the same rate as younger people, but what does that mean?

It means that older people (average age 70), after practicing a challenging, complicated new task, learn at a similar rate as younger people (average age 22). This includes all types of tasks including motor tasks and it extends to the retention of the new learning as well.

Two things bring it back into perspective –

  1. Older people start from behind compared to younger people. Their performance levels are lower. Retaining brain plasticity doesn’t mean they operate at the same level. It means they can make a similar degree of improvement when learning challenging new tasks as younger people. It all depends upon the level of skill they start from and everyone starts at a different level.
  2. Older people have trouble filtering out irrelevant material in their learning, so they end up learning irrelevant stuff they don’t need. This is a problem. Learning and memory capability is limited for everyone, so we don’t need to cram irrelevant data in there. In older people there is the potential for existing information that is important to be replaced with trivial information!

The ability to filter out un-wanted information is known as ‘brain stability’. Older people would improve their skills if they could learn the art of filtering out information that is not relevant. This might be where the effort should go in helping older people cope with change.

Society is being asked to adapt to new technology at an ever-increasing rate and we all need to change old habits to cope with the pace of change.

We shouldn’t hold back on providing challenging new tasks for older people because now we know that they can make great progress.

Just like with younger people, learning new tasks requires repetition and effort. Given that they start from behind the younger ones, in order to get up to the same level of skill they might have to try harder. More repetition; more effort.

Trying harder is something that older people might know quite a lot about, given the life they’ve led.

Keep asking great questions …

                 

P.S. There are new ways of learning too that will help older people that I will discuss in the next edition.

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