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Can aging brains cut it in the classroom? Add to ...

QUESTION: Given the fact that memory and concentration skills tend to decline with age, how difficult would it be for a person in their 50s to return to university to work on a masters degree? And are there strategies that can be used to improve cognitive powers to be a top-performing older student?

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ANSWER: This is a question that many people are asking, especially those who have lost their job and need to look for new work or a complete career change that may require upgrading skills or retraining.

Although it is true that some cognitive powers decline with age, it's not all bad news. Some cognitive skills actually improve with age, and there are many techniques for compensating for the abilities that do diminish.

With age comes more life experience, which is important for building your body of general knowledge. There is evidence that knowledge and experience are important for decision-making. For example, your knowledge about how past problems were solved can help you make smarter decisions when faced with new problems.

On the flip side, there are some cognitive challenges that come with older age, and it is important to be aware of these in order to pro-actively compensate for them.

One of the most robust cognitive changes is a general slowing in processing speed. This means that it takes the average 50-year-old more time to take in new information, process that information and make decisions compared with a 20-year-old. Older students need to give themselves extra time when faced with a new learning situation, such as reading a textbook or working on an assignment.

Another age-related change is an increased vulnerability to distraction. Although your teenager appears able to study while simultaneously listening to music and texting friends, this becomes more difficult with increasing age. Focus on one task at a time, and study in a quiet place free of distraction to give your attention a power boost and optimize new learning.

Part of the challenge of returning to school is having to remember a considerable amount of new information. Most people over 40 or 50 have noticed this is not as easy as it used to be.

Fortunately, research has provided us with useful tools and techniques to improve memory. One of the most powerful and practical ways to get new information into memory and keep it there is to repeat the information often over time. Rather than cramming study periods into a few time slots, it is much more effective to use shorter study periods spaced apart over time. For example, when learning new concepts or facts, read the relevant information thoroughly, then quiz yourself immediately afterward, then again after a few minutes, a few hours, and the next day.

Another good strategy is to organize your schedule to stay on top of assignments. We have a number of electronic tools to help us with this. Using a smart phone or other electronic organizer can help you file away important information, recall it quickly and remind yourself of class projects and deadlines.

Going back to school in middle age or later years is a wonderful opportunity for personal and professional growth. What one lacks in speed and raw memory power can be more than made up for by taking a smart approach and employing the strategies I've outlined above.

Dr. Angela Troyer is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of psychology at Baycrest in Toronto. She runs the Memory and Aging Program - a five-week education and discussion series for older adults in the community.

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