Why It Gets Harder To Learn As We Get Older

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It may be the ability to filter and eliminate old information—rather than take in the new stuff—that makes it harder to learn as we age, scientists report:

“‘When you are young, your brain is able to strengthen certain connections and weaken certain connections to make new memories,” said Joe Z. Tsien, a neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia. It’s that critical weakening that appears hampered in the older brain, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

Neurons in young people’s brains are able to “talk” to one another a fraction of a second longer and make stronger bonds with each other, optimizing learning and memory.

When Tsien and his colleagues examined young mice genetically modified to have brains that mimic adults’, they were surprised at what they found. The rodents were still good at making strong connections and short-term memories, but had an impaired ability to weaken existing connections, and were less able to make new long-term memories as a result. This process is called information sculpting, and adult brains don’t appear to be very good at it.

‘If you only make synapses stronger and never get rid of the noise or less useful information, then it’s a problem,” said Tsien. The relentless onslaught of information and experiences our brains experience necessitates some selective whittling. Insufficient sculpting, at least in Tsien’s mice, meant a reduced ability to remember things short-term and long-term.” (Read more here.)

I’m no neuroscientist, but I find myself wondering whether reducing that “onslaught of information and experiences” as we get older might compensate for the aging brain’s declining ability to filter out stimuli on a neural level.

How about you—do you find that you seek out less external stimulation now than when you were younger?

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3 Responses to “Why It Gets Harder To Learn As We Get Older”

  1. I find the reverse is true. The increasing amount of novel information and experiences the Web has enabled has resulted in my being able to learn like I wasn’t able to in my 20s and 30s! In the past it was easy to be stuck in one’s ways, without exposure to new ideas. Now, it is easier to question one’s old habits and “knowledge” in light of different ideas. That’s my experience.

  2. Steven Flinn says:

    But from another recent study of older adults: “Strategic learning capacity may actually increase with age – All three age groups were comparable as strategic learners. Those in their 70s performed at least as well as the 50s age group on a cognitive measure of strategic learning. All groups performed similarly when asked to filter the most relevant information from the extraneous.” http://eon.businesswire.com/news/eon/20121219005984/en

  3. Sid C says:

    I agree with this article. I had always believed this before reading this article and study. Older folks have more data on their hard drives than younger folk. Much like a hard drive that is 90% full. Read write access takes longer. The question now is, how do we clean and reorganize the disk so it works more efficiently.

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