Age is of course the biggest risk factor for all kinds of brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. But even without disorders, many people assume that you can no longer learn a complex skill at the age of 90. For a long time, scientists believed that brain connections develop rapidly in the first few years of our lives, reaching a peak around age 20. In middle age, our cognitive skills would begin to flatten, only to gradually weaken.
Wisdom comes with age
On the other hand, the branching of dendrites, the extensions of our nerve cells, increases. This strengthens the connections between brain areas. “This means that the brains get better at linking and seeing the bigger picture as they age.” That is why you often hear older people say that putting things into perspective and letting go become much easier with the passing of the years. And isn’t that the source of all wisdom? Expert: “Admittedly, children may still find it easier to refine certain acquired skills. A typical example of this is mastering a second language at a native level. But don’t forget that children simply have more time and opportunities to learn something new, with the support of schools and classmates.
But in many different areas, mature brains can still make amazing progress. Moreover, adults can compensate for a number of shortcomings with their greater capacity for analysis, reflection, and – not unimportantly during a learning process – self-discipline. So where does that persistent cliché come from that we no longer have to start something new when we get older?
Lifelong learning: what’s stopping us?
Expert: “A simple lack of self-confidence can be the biggest obstacle – older students often fear a general cognitive decline after they retire. In part, children also have such a flexible learning capacity because they have to learn several skills at the same time and are in the right environment for this. Finally, both experts and laymen continue to emphasize that ‘staying active is the best way to stay cognitively sharp. But recommendations like “exercise, healthy eating, and doing crossword puzzles” don’t prioritize learning new skills. And that while the benefits of learning would outweigh those of maintenance. They rejuvenate your brain.”