Our grandmothers were sometimes afraid of the telephone. Having grown up in a time when having one was a luxury, being expected to pick up that blasted thing that could suddenly start ringing out of the blue and then talk to it (!) was a source of some degree of stress.
Our mothers wring their hands over email and online forms. Even the phone book is online these days, you can’t even make a decent phone call without having to switch on the computer.
And what about us? For many of us, Facebook, Twitter and all the even newer forms of social media are the equivalent of the phone and computer to the generations before us. The reaction to new ways of doing things is often far from enthusiastic. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we complain, why change things when everything worked so well? Our inner Luddite rails at the world, and just can’t see the point of all this mindless online chatter. And there is a lot of truth in the criticism voiced by the older generation. Doing everything via a screen has distanced the younger generation from the deep satisfaction of reading a physical book, from the hidden joys contained in a shelf at the library, from the wisdom of slowing down and not communicating with anyone for a day, a weekend, a week….
The problem is that if we constantly refuse to learn how to use new methods of social discourse we are aligning ourselves with a period of earth’s history that is on its way out. “I don’t know why they had to change to these irritating digital photocopiers,” a secretary said. “The older ones worked just as well, didn’t need to be programmed, and anyway I’m too old to change.”
However, children resist change too, when it doesn’t suit them, but they are less likely to complain when new ideas are introduced, and the reason is probably simply because they do not have to unlearn several old methods first, unlike adults, so it requires less effort.
Are older adults too old to change then? Is there any truth in the idea that older people should not be expected to learn new things?
Actually, there isn’t. The adult brain is remarkably resilient. It seems to be capable of rewiring itself well into late middle age and beyond, incorporating new and different approaches into decades of experience. Not only does the middle-aged mind maintain many of the abilities of youth, but it also acquires new ones, possessing enduring potential for plasticity according to cognitive neuroscientist Patricia Reuter-Lorenz PhD of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Older adults are also more positive and more able to sort through social situations. Some middle-agers even have improved cognitive abilities.
Researchers suspect that one reason middle-aged people are more resilient is that their brains have learned to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that in younger adults the amygdala, the brain’s emotional ‘nut’, was activated when they looked at upsetting as well as uplifting images. Adults in their middle and upper decades, by contrast, seemed to have the ability to screen out or dampen down negative emotions; their amygdalas lit up when they saw positive images but tended to ignore disturbing ones.
Most of us were brought up with the idea our brains start to die off practically the moment we are born, but this is not true. Neurons continue to grow in the cerebral cortex throughout life. Learning new skills (even something as banal as brushing our teeth with the other hand) can help ‘fix’ these new neurons in the brain, as can education – a degree appears to slow the brain’s ageing process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education – and it is never too late to start educating oneself.
Problems older people encounter such as memory failure turn out to be not due to age but due to the diseases that often arise in later life such as diabetes (twice as likely to have memory problems) and high blood pressure (twice as likely to have areas of brain damage). Maintaining a vigorous exercise programme can help us avoid these medical conditions and thus make full use of the superior minds we develop the longer we stick around on the planet.
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