Shoot, what are those small green vegetables that look like mini cabbages? Yesterday I couldn’t remember the word for brussels sprouts; last week it was a friend at Trader Joe’s whose name slipped my mind. A couple months ago I forgot the property tax. That cost me a pretty penny.
Most of us fear losing brain function as we age. However, we all have been successfully tackling cognitive loss since early adulthood. Laura T. Germine, psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, published research in 2015 showing that processing speed peaks in the late teens.
Short-term memory for names and faces is best between ages 22 and 30, and vocabulary acquisition levels off somewhere between age 50 and 65.
Germine and co-author Joshua K. Hartshorne could take the glass-half-empty inference that we’re all on the road to senility. Instead they rosily conclude, “Not only is there no age at which humans are performing at peak at all cognitive tasks, there may not be an age at which humans are at peak at most cognitive tasks.”
Scientists are finding neurological support for what generally has been credited to older adults: Wisdom.
Author Rich Karlgaard (“Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace,”) writes, “Our brains are constantly forming neural networks and pattern-recognition capabilities that we didn’t have in our youth when we had blazing synaptic horsepower.”
Older adults’ cumulative skills make up for speed and memory losses. Moreover, adults can cultivate this wisdom in ways more certain than buying memory pills online. Researchers Rachel Wu, George W. Rebok and Feng Vankee Lin find six ways seniors can improve long-term, broad cognitive skills. They pinpoint:
1. Open-minded input-driven learning
2. Individualized scaffolding
3. Growth mindset
4. Forgiving environment
5. Serious commitment to learning
6. Learning multiple skills simultaneously
Each factor is worthy of analysis, but the last finding surprised and interested me. It appears that people may learn better when tackling multiple new skills at once.
In the study, adults over age 55 tasked with taking on three new skills, “not only acquired proficiency in these areas but improved their cognitive functioning overall, including working and episodic memory.”
I have enjoyed being a serial neophyte over the past decade and more. I took up stand-up paddle boarding when I was past the half-century mark, though now I sometimes lack the strength to drag the board to the beach and through the surf. I returned to fencing for a season after nearly 40 years, though it was hard on my knees. This has led to a new practice of yoga, where my mountain pose is surpassed only by an excellent Shavasana.
My homegrown kombucha, kefir, and nasturtium capers attest to my learning in fermented foods as natural probiotics. Most fulfilling, I now play a band instrument, a dream since childhood piano days. For the past five years, I have I joyfully added my saxophone tones to the Prime Time Band.
Each new skill I acquire is without the expectation of becoming an expert. As Margo Talbot writes in The New Yorker: “If you think of dilettantism as an endorsement of learning for learning’s sake … what’s not to love?”
She continues, “Being willing to involve yourself in something you’re mediocre at but intrinsically enjoy, to give yourself over to the imperfect pursuit of something you’d like to know how to do for no particular reason, seems like a small form of resistance.”
I haven’t yet tried learning three new skills at once. This sounds daunting. It may be that hyper learning would preserve a few extra synapses, but it also seems more stressful than fun. I find myself feeling a bit resistant to being a triple beginner.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.