When was the last time you learned something? Probably only recently, like the management consultant, conflict moderator and ageing expert Elisabeth Michel-Alder. In response to our question, she says: "Today, while inventively repairing an art object and editing a book on individual, social and economic aspects of career choice and development". We learn all the time, at least informally.
Formal learning is another thing. When did you last attend a course in further education? Maybe it was a long time ago. Older people in particular think it is no longer worthwhile for them. Too bad! It's never wrong to keep learning and age is no barrier at all. The saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" has been disproved.
The Brain Keeps Fit into Old Age
We have to live with it: Our brains age and lose substance. That is the bad news. But fortunately, there is good news, too: the brain compensates for this degradation to a large extent, it forms new nerve cells throughout its life. This means that we can continue to learn into old age, except in the case of dementia.
How does the brain manage to stay fit despite the degradation of brain substance? The psychologists Professor Dr. Martin Meyer and Elena Mayorova from the University of Zurich explain it in their essay "Cognitive Reserve: Learning in Old Age" with the image of hardware and software. The hardware is the structure of the brain, the software is the neuronal networks as the basis for our cognitive abilities. In young adults, hardware and software are closely linked.
"One of the most surprising recent findings indicates," write Martin Meyer and Elena Mayorova, "that this close relationship decouples the older a person gets." Science concludes that the brain reorganises itself as it grows older in order to counteract an impending decline in performance. In this way, it manages to keep the mental level at a stable level, even if the mass shrinks considerably in some cases. Studies show that senior citizens activate different networks for the same cognitive tasks than younger people.
No Success without Training
Like the body, the brain needs training to stay fit. But how?
Let me say it right away: It doesn't work without effort. For example, it is not enough to solve crossword puzzles or Sudoku puzzles regularly. If you train this, you will be able to solve crossword puzzles and Sudoku puzzles better, but according to Martin Meyer and Elena Mayorova, this gain has "no visible effect on general cognitive abilities such as memory, problem solving or logical thinking". The brain needs more complex tasks. Elisabeth Michel Alder gives examples: "Experts advise learning a musical instrument, dancing the tango or seeking solutions to very complex conflicts."
"Younger women and men engage more easily with abstract content. Older people look for links between previous experiences, available knowledge and new content; they value the connection between theory and practice."
According to Meyer and Mayorova, the complex training requirements can be explained by how our brain works. It is perfectly equipped to "take in information sensually, link it together, form associations between mental contents and draw action-relevant conclusions from them".
Older People Learn Differently
Anyone with a few years under his or her belt has certainly noticed that he or she learns differently than in the past. Ageing expert Elisabeth Michel-Alder explains why: "Younger women and men engage more easily with abstract content, for example mathematics. Older people look for links between previous experiences, available knowledge and new content; they value the connection between theory and practice."
Science distinguishes between fluid intelligence and crystalline intelligence. Fluid intelligence stands for the ability to solve new problems and to quickly find one's way in new situations. Crystalline intelligence encompasses knowledge and experience. While the fluid performance of the brain declines after midlife, the crystalline one can be maintained or even increase until the end of life. Learning of older people builds on this. They do not learn a new computer application programme as nimbly as the grandchild but can solve a complex problem quickly thanks to their experience and knowledge. The advantages and disadvantages balance each other out. Older people therefore do not learn worse than younger people.
"If you want to stay in touch with the natural, political and economic environment and your fellow human beings and understand yourself as well as the world a little bit, you must not drop out of the learning process.”
Learning Increases the Quality of Life
Why should people continue to learn into old age? "To be able to put your own care and cleaning robot into operation in the future." That is Elisabeth Michel-Alder's witty answer. She adds a serious one:
"If you want to stay in touch with the natural, political and economic environment and your fellow human beings and understand yourself as well as the world a little bit, you must not drop out of the learning process. Growing older means personal development; that doesn't work without learning." In the view of the ageing expert, retirement does not change this at all; it is an arbitrarily set date.
Further Education Is Worthwhile for Everyone
Keeping employees learning at an older age is also worthwhile for employers - the key words being demographic challenges and a shortage of skilled workers. The problem can only be solved if older employees are given the opportunity to acquire new skills. Employers are well advised to actively promote further training among their older employees. And older employees should demand it.
Do you want to be happy and content in old age instead of bored and waiting for death? Then let yourself be inspired by Elisabeth Michel-Alder and challenge your brain. Learn something new! For example, in a course offered by Employess Switzerland.
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