HEALTH & WELLNESS

Why is it harder to learn new things as you age?

Despite common beliefs, research shows that brain performance can actually peak around middle age. Find out more.

8 mins to read
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Whoever coined the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” clearly didn’t have access to the latest research. It’s a common misconception that mental decline and age go hand-in-hand. The truth is, an elderly brain doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll find it harder to learn new things. Some research suggests that your brain might actually become increasingly capable as you age.

Of course, many factors influence this – your cell health being a major one. In non-human studies, scientists have discovered there’s a strong connection between aging, declining synapse function (a nervous system structure that transmits electrical signals between brain cells) and the health of your neurons. Such studies have also found that animals that have a large number of totipotent stem cells (self-renewing cells) may be able to renew themselves - meaning they’ve, essentially, “discovered the foundation of youth.”

Of course, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the cellular aging process in humans – it's a subject that researchers continue to investigate. But, in recent years, human studies have provided us with some initial insights into whether younger people learn easier, at what age our brains are the sharpest, whether MitoQ might be able to support brain health and, of course, whether or not it is, in fact, more difficult to learn new things as we age.

Do younger people learn easier?

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Your brain goes through many changes throughout your life – meaning that young people and old people do react differently to new things, in some instances. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, over one million brand new neural connections are formed per second within the first few years of your life. While your neurons can form new connections throughout your life, it’s at a much slower speed than in those first few years. These connections help to form your brain and also build the foundations for your future brain development. But these connections aren’t the only things that influence how you learn throughout your life: genetics, experiences, your emotional wellbeing and social life all influence how you learn. The more you use a specific circuit in your brain, the stronger it will become. Essentially, learning is largely influenced by how your brain is trained from a young age.

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Some researchers argue that young people do find it easier to learn than adults simply because the world is newer to them, giving them more motivation to ask questions and explore. But the American Psychological Association (APA) has indicated that simple math abilities, abstract reasoning, verbal abilities and spatial reasoning all improve during middle age. According to APA, middle-age is also when you’re most likely to make better financial decisions and be drawn to positive information over negative information. You may even experience improved cognitive abilities during this time.

At what age is your brain the sharpest?

An expanding amount of research points to ages 40-50+ as being the peak time in brain development (although there is a small percentage of octogenarians who are being studied for their abilities to remain mentally sharp well into their 80s and 90s). APA has published a collection of the following findings on brain performance during middle-age:

  • Middle-aged adults perform better on four out of six cognitive tests, compared to young adults
  • The brain’s white matter increases until age 40-50, suggesting “there are some developmental changes that really don’t hit their peak until somewhere in middle age”.
  • On average, financial reasoning peaks at age 53
  • People are better at remembering positive imagery between the ages of 40-80+
  • Older pilots (aged roughly 69) typically take longer than younger pilots (roughly aged 40) to learn to use simulators, but are better at avoiding collisions
  • Middle-aged brains are typically calmer, less neurotic and better at coping with social situations

Why is it harder to learn things as you get older?

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The key driver in this thinking is that, yes, often our memories and attention spans decline with age – making it difficult for us to learn new things. The National Institute of Aging (NIH) notes that memory (particularly of names), multitasking and attention span can all decline with age. However, they also stress that aging can also bring positive changes such as a wider vocabulary, a greater depth of knowledge and experience along with the continued ability to learn new skills and form new memories. Some people are also an exception to the norms of mental aging - NIH refers to them as “cognitive super agers”, aka, people who “remain cognitively sharp into their 80s, 90s and beyond” - presenting memory test results comparable to people who are up to 30 years younger. Research has shown these “super agers” have a few key things in common:

  1. Their brains “defy wear and tear better than the average brain”
  2. Their cingulate cortexes (the brain area responsible for sorting information linked to memory, attention, cognition and motivation) are thicker than is typical for their age group
  3. Compared to cingulate cortexes in middle-aged adults, cognitive super agers’ cingulate cortexes show no signs of decline
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“If you study a wide range of abilities, you begin to realize how very complex cognitive decline is and how many individual differences there are,” says Sherry Willis, the leader of a study conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle that has recorded the cognitive abilities of adults over a 50-year period (in an interview with APA).

How to keep your brain healthy as you age

Another APA interviewee, cognitive neuroscientist Patricia Reuter-Lorenz states, “Instead of a crisis, middle age should be thought of as a time for a new form of self-investment. This time of life brings so many new opportunities to invest in your own cognitive and physical resources, so you can buffer against the effects of older age”. In terms of what you can do to maintain your mental sharpness during middle age, APA reports that those who are physically, cognitively and socially active are more likely to be mentally sharper in middle age – so it pays to start incorporating related activities into your lifestyle now. To keep your mind sharp, Harvard Health recommends prioritizing:

  • Sleep
  • Physical exercise
  • Not smoking
  • Building and maintaining quality social connections
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Eating a Mediterranean-style diet
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Can MitoQ support brain health?

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Many MitoQ reviews attribute healthy aging, good energy levels and feeling “mentally sharper” to MitoQ. In theory, this is likely because the brain is powered by a high number of mitochondria – the cellular powerhouses that MitoQ has been designed to support. Whether MitoQ definitely has a positive impact on mental performance is yet to be studied in humans, however, non-human studies have produced promising results.

Learn about MitoQ’s 600+ research papers

If you’re specifically wanting to support your mental performance, we recommend trying MitoQ curcumin or MitoQ +brain. MitoQ curcumin contains Longvida® Curcumin, an ingredient that has been clinically shown to support working memory, energy and mood in healthy older adults.

In addition to the MitoQ molecule, MitoQ +brain contains ginkgo extract (which has been clinically shown to support cognitive function), Huperzine A (which has been clinically shown to support cognitive performance) Zembrin® (clinical trials have suggested this may provide support during times of stress) and Sharp PS® Phosphatidylserine (studies have demonstrated that oral administration of Sharp-PS supports mental clarity, focus, normal mood balance and brain function).

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