Brain Myth, #5

(You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?)

Myth #5: You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

An old brain can rewire itself to compensate for losses, and refresher courses can keep one's mind sharper.

  • Perhaps the best news from cognitive aging research is that even if you do lose it, you might be able to get it back again.
  • Even an old brain retains an astonishing ability to rejuvenate itself because older brains literally rewire themselves to compensate for losses.
  • If one neuron isn't up to the job, neighboring brain cells help pick up the slack because as brains age, they can actually shift responsibilities for a given task from one region of the brain to another one.
  • This concept holds great promise for those seeking to help the elderly "relearn" skills and avoid the debilitating belief that they are irreversibly in decline.
  • Clinical psychologists are using techniques not only to improve academic performance, but also to keep the elderly sharp and independently functioning in their daily lives.

No myth: older is often wiser

  • Not all cultures have looked upon the elderly as frail-minded; for example, the Bible celebrates the wisdom of old King Solomon, and since ancient times, Eastern cultures have revered their elders as gurus.
  • Scientists now have a way to measure "wisdom" and are confirming that it is an asset that grows with age.
  • Certain research has shown that, although it often takes older people longer than youngsters to make a decision, it is usually a better one.
  • There is now such a preponderance of evidence that older brains adjust cleverly to changing biology that leaders in the cognitive aging field describe older brains not as inferior, but simply as different from younger brains.
  • It is likely to take some time before researchers sort through the myriad factors that seem to aid or to impede the aging mind; however, never again will the scientific community simply define old age as a time of mental frailty.
  • It is even possible that, as in popular circles, the ancient idea of the elder as a sage might find renewed vitality.
-Compiled from excerpts in "Brain Power" by Joannie M. Schrof;
as seen in a U.S. News & World Report article;
November 28, 1994; pages 94 & 97.

One forgets words as one forgets names. A person's vocabulary needs constant fertilization or it will die.

-Evelyn Waugh, British novelist

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