Top Brain Myths #8: Downhill after 40?

8. It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70).
Smithsonian: It’s true, some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults—and never play a game of concentration against a 10-year-old unless you’re prepared to be humiliated. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster to count backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Vocabulary, for instance—older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they’re better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.

RCG: One of the things that happens as we get older is we lose our patience more quickly. When a baby isn’t successful the first time she tries to walk, we don’t say, “Oh, well, I guess she isn’t meant to walk! I guess we’ll just have to carry her around.” We let the baby try and try again until she makes all the necessary connections and gets it right. As adults, however, we don’t give ourselves enough time or opportunities to get better.

The really cool concept here is that people can learn right up until the moment they die. There is no reason to feel stuck or locked-in, although we often do. Beginning with the assumption that everyone can learn, however, produces much better results than assuming the opposite.

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