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Is there an age limit on learning?

Health & Wellness Article - June 2012
by Marge Coalman, EdD, Touchmark Vice President, Wellness & Programs
 
“When ‘outward agents’ flood our sensory corridors and reach the brain, they leave ‘paths, which do not easily disappear.” —William James, author of The Principles of Psychology 1890
 
The information in the masterpiece that James wrote more than 120 years ago is remarkably similar to today’s research on neural plasticity. Here are some facts and myths that matter in the quest to expand our brain capacity and function.
 
Fact: Exercise matters. More evidence accrues every day regarding the value of physical activity – especially aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, hiking, aerobics, or using an exercise bike. The frequency recommended is 30 minutes or more, most days of the week.
Myth: I’m too old to start exercising. In their book Age-Defying Fitness, Moffat and Lewis affirm that the problems attributed to old age are, in fact, not inevitable and are often attributable to lifestyle choices. Even with age-related illness or disability, people can take responsibility for their physical well-being.
Fact: Diet matters. What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Foods especially high in brain benefit are blueberries, strawberries, kale and other dark leafy green vegetables, wild salmon, sardines and other seafood rich in Omega 3, nuts and seeds, avocadoes, and whole grains.
 
Myth: Anti-aging pills, powders, liquids and supplements are beneficial. Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, founding director of the New England Centenarian Study (Boston University School of Medicine), refers to these items as “anti-aging quackery.” Almost all of these products are unregulated, and benefits are unfounded. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Fact: Focus and attention matter in new learning and brain-training activities. Concentrate on one neural activity at a time. An exception is exercising and using the brain simultaneously for a specific learning task, which has been shown to be beneficial.
Myth: Multitasking enhances brain capacity and encourages new learning. Attention and focus enhance working memory and perceptual speed, which improve a broad range of cognitive abilities. Doing multiple cognitive activities at the same time inhibits learning.
 
Fact: Being socially connected matters. Extroverts do better in all studies that have been done on lifelong learning. Family, friends, volunteering, participating in clubs, and social networking provide as many benefits as exercise and diet.
 
Myth: Keeping to oneself enhances well-being. Social isolation is a major risk factor for depression and decreased cognitive function.
Fact: Smoking harms the brain and most of the body. Do not smoke, and if you do, quit.
Myth: If I have smoked all or most of my life, quitting will not help. Stopping smoking at any age provides health benefits, including cognitive function.
Whether you are 25 or 105, new learning can occur. Do things that are novel and different, and do cognitively stimulating activities every day. For information on Touchmark’s brain games and brain aerobics, contact a member of the Full Life team. Living a Full Life has no age limit!