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When I applied for a PhD program, I was supposed to sit for the GMAT, a test I’d already taken for my MBA several years earlier. I’d done well then, but I’d been away from formal coursework. I doubted I could get back into the testing mindset. I’d be muttering, “This is really stupid” as I read every question.

Fortunately, the admins waived the requirement. They realized the test was geared more to MBAs than doctoral programs. 

My response wasn’t at all related to age. There was the “been there done that” effect.

“I’ve taken enough tests for a lifetime,” I thought. “Never again.”

I think of this every time I hear someone say, “I’m too old to learn this.” Or worse, someone arbitrarily decides that everyone’s cognitive skills inevitably diminish as we get older. 

Medicare requires a cognitive test as part of its non-required annual wellness exam. As some doctors recently pointed out, the exam seems designed only for frail people who can’t function independently. A “robust” healthy person will either ignore the exam or waste the taxpayer’s money.

So I was delighted to see another perspective from researchers Rachel Wu and Jessica A. Church. Writing in Scientific American, they say

“People start to perform worse in tests of cognitive abilities such as processing speed, the rate at which someone does a mental task. The slide becomes steeper after 60 years of age.

“These changes are often ascribed to normal aging. But what if instead they represent something more like the “summer slide” that schoolchildren experience?”

These researchers designed a three-month intervention that  “enhanced participants’ memory and attention,” leading to cognitive abilities that matched scores of adults who were 30 years younger. Even more astounding, one year later, the participants’ scores on cognitive dimensions were similar to adults 50 years younger.

The study was small – 33 adults aged 58 to 86. The intervention was simple: participants were invited to participate in three skill development classes in subjects like Spanish, photography, iPad usage, and music composition.

In summary, these older adults were assigned three courses, much like college students who take 3 courses in a structured setting. They responded like college students: they studied and developed their brainpower.

The authors are quick to point out that structured learning may not be the only way to accomplish these results. But they say, younger people often see their skills decline over a long summer or absence from school. We assume these declines are temporary. What if that’s also true for much older adults:

“Let’s shift the conversation in adulthood from a focus on staving off loss and decline, or merely maintaining what people have, to a discussion of learning, growth, and thriving.”

Why are we not surprised? After all, when was the last time you took an exam at any level of formal education? If it’s more than a few years, your brain hasn’t been squeezed the same way.  

If you think about it, this research on cognitive decline seems parallel to studies of physical decline. People who exercise keep their mobility; people who use their brains will retain and even improve their cognitive capabilities.

The bottom line recommendation seems to be, “As you get older, ignore all advice to ‘take it easy.’ Keep challenging yourself.

Aging parents? In my book, I suggest gifting them with 3 sessions with a tough personal trainer.

These studies show you’ll help them even more by encouraging them to enroll in online courses, especially for building skills. Look up the most popular MOOCs, such as Coursera and EdX. You can also buy them a subscription to Wondrium, the company that operated for years as the Great Courses. They can attend college-level presentations remotely.

Many people look forward to retirement as a life of leisure and “doing whatever I want.”. For both mental and physical health, that may be the worst thing they can do.