How Aging Affects Learning Ability
- BRAIN HEALTH
- Content Team
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The older we get it feels as though it becomes more and more difficult to learn and process new things. Is there a mental roadblock preventing us from learning or is there something in our brains that turns off at a certain age? In this article, we will discuss how your brain ages, whether or not it becomes more difficult to learn new things, at what age does it become more difficult, and ways you can always keep your brain engaged and active.
How Does Your Brain Change with Age?
As we get older, our brain changes dramatically both physically and in the way it’s wired. For example, as we get older, our brain shrinks in volume, particularly in the frontal cortex. Other changes in our body can also lead to changes in our brains. As our vasculature ages and our blood pressure rises, the possibility of stroke and ischemia increases. Memory decline can also be common as we get older. Experts believe that this may be an attempt to compensate and recruit additional networks or because specific areas are no longer easily accessed. With that in mind, it’s important to note that extreme memory loss is no longer considered one of the common brain changes as you age. Instead, researchers now believe that extreme memory loss is caused by diseases and other disorders.
Why is it Harder to Learn New Things as You Age?
Recent research points to the fact that the increasing difficulty in learning new information and skills is not because it’s difficult to acquire new information, but because of the interference from older information. When it comes to learning new things, strengthening connections in the brain is just as important as weakening others. A vital player in this process of synaptic plasticity is the NMDA receptor in the hippocampus. This glutamate receptor has two subunits (NR2A and NR2B), whose ratio changes as the brain develops. Children have higher ratios of NR2B, which lengthens the time neurons talk to each other, enabling them to make stronger connections, thus optimizing learning. After puberty, the ratio shifts, so there is more NR2A.
But at what age does learning become more difficult? It can be difficult to definitively point to a specific year and say ‘this is when learning becomes more difficult. While the brain may be less plastic at 25, adults generally have better discipline and focus and are able to commit to studying a topic. Children tend to distract themselves or not pay attention to things they are learning. New things can be learned at any age barring impairment; it'll likely just take a couple more repetitions.
What is the Best Age to Learn New Things?
As we have already mentioned, there is no year that you can definitively point at and say ‘this is where it becomes more difficult to learn new things.’ How well you are able to learn new things will always differ by age just as everything you learn in life is irrespective of your age. Here are some examples of learning ability by age relative to things they may pertain to you:
- 0-5 - Walking, speaking, basic interactions
- 5-10 - Learning, reading, writing
- 10-15 - Learn to play games, science, math, etc.
- 15-25 - Learn to drive, take care of yourself without parental supervision
- 25-50 - Learn things that pertain to your job or career field, learn how to raise a family
- 60+ - Learn how to best handle yourself and your time now that your work life is slowing down
As you can see, your ability to learn all depends on what it is you’re expecting to learn. As humans, we learn something new every day. With that being said, there are some medical ailments that you may develop which leads to a decrease in cognitive function, making it more difficult to learn new things.
Does Your Ability to Learn Decrease with Age?
As we mentioned at the top of the article, while it was once believed that a decline in cognitive function and memory retention was just a part of aging, that is no longer the case. In fact, many forms of motor learning appear to be relatively well preserved with age. On the other hand, learning tasks that involve associative binding tend to be negatively affected.
Recent research suggests that the ability to acquire knowledge incidentally about configural response relationships is largely unaffected by cognitive aging. The configural response learning task provides insight into the task demands that constrain learning abilities in older adults.
When is it Easier to Learn a New Language?
Researchers do believe that there is a specific age you should learn a new language by and the number may be far lower than you think. According to research, the best time to learn a new language with native-speaker proficiency is by the age of 10. Children under 10 can more easily absorb information and excel in the new language. Young people under the age of 18 can still show great skill at mastering the grammar of a new language, but things start to get more challenging beyond this point.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s impossible to learn a new language after the age of 18. In fact, some researchers believe that you can learn a new language quicker as you get older, but you won’t be as proficient with the language. Researchers believe this is because people under the age of 18 can better grasp the grammar of other languages.
Why Do Children Learn So Quickly?
There are several different things that play a role when considering children’s ability to learn vs adults. One of the main reasons children learn quicker than adults is simply due to the fact that children have more time on their hands than adults. Kids do not have the same responsibilities as adults and while you may be focusing on working, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, and taking care of the bills, they can focus on learning a new language or instrument.
Another key factor is that adults possess a larger fear of embarrassing themselves in front of people they care about. Learning new things requires a large period of trial and error which can lead to some embarrassment. Children don’t process that embarrassment the same way adults do. As you notice, the differences between the ways children learn and the way adults learn have far more to do with environmental factors than hard-wired brain factors.
At What Age Do You Stop Learning?
As we mentioned earlier in the article, there is no definitive proof that points to a certain age where humans simply stop learning. While you may feel as though you are incapable of learning new things, it’s not because your brain has become incapable of learning new things, but because your brain has become complacent. Research suggests that by the age of 25 your brain tends to become lazier. It’s not that it can no longer process new things, but that it would rather rely on a set number of neuro pathways to do our thinking. In other words, your brain starts to rely on repetition.
You can shake this up by making a point to learn new things on a daily basis. The more and more you challenge your brain the more and more receptive it will be to learning and processing new things. Make it your goal to learn a new instrument or language. Challenging yourself to learn new things is a great way to prevent cognitive decline as you get older. It’s also a great way to boost your memory.
Supplements Can Help
Taking care of your body with a proper diet, exercise routine, and supplement regimen can help you increase your longevity. Supplements, such as a spermidine supplement, can help you live a longer life by inducing autophagy throughout your body. Autophagy is the body’s process of replacing older, potentially damaged cell components, with newer healthier ones.
This process becomes increasingly important as you get older and your cells become more and more worn down. Supplements can be beneficial because it can be difficult to get your recommended daily intake of spermidine through your diet alone. By taking a spermidine capsule with your dinner, you ensure that you always get your daily dose of spermidine.