The belief that learning is more difficult for older people (was: Bigotry (you win, I give up))

Ben Finney ben+python at
Wed Apr 19 22:21:25 EDT 2017

"Deborah Swanson" <python at> writes:

> But this bit caught my eye because I hold the opposite opinion about
> old people's ability to learn.
> It is a choice.

The topic is complex, and both “It is entirely determined by your own
choices” and “It is in no way determined by your own choices” are false.

The NIH article _Regulation of Cerebrovascular Aging_ is a good one on
the topic <URL:>.

In brief: there *are* inevitable processes that advance further as the
human body ages, which tend to make learning more difficult. And there
*are* choices that most people can make, which can improve that
prognosis but not stop it.

> So, it is a choice of how you live your life, and how important it is
> to you to have a mind worth keeping. I see no reason to accord those
> people who didn't care all their lives any special status.

That simply isn't supported by the evidence. Human brain function tends
to deteriorate past early adulthood.

Not everyone is in possession of the precise knowledge at the right
stage of life to slow that decline; and of those who do have that
knowledge, many are not in a position to effectively take those actions;
and of those who do take such action, not all of them will certainly be

There are many actions a person can take throughout their life that
*may* improve, statistically, the likelihood of slowing the
deterioration of brain function in later life.

But merely knowing that a person is (a) advanced in age, and (b)
experiencing difficulty learning new things, does not justify concluding
that person's conscious choices are to blame. How can you dismiss the
possibility of forces beyond their control – bad dietary options, bad
education options, bad genetic inheritance, bad luck generally – as
causing their situation?

You cannot reasonably dismiss those factors beyond their control. So no,
I'd say it is not acceptable to draw the general conclusion that
people's own choices are entirely responsible for how much decline in
learning ability they experience.

> Oh, and I think it's also a choice whether you are stupid or not,
> barring physical abnormalities of the brain. Regardless of age, gender
> or race.

Well, all deterioration of brain function is in some sense due to
“physical abnormalities of the brain”, because normal brain function is
healthy by definition.

A surprising – and uncomfortably fuzzy-bordered – amount of people's
current personality is due to the state of their brain, beyond their
conscious control, today and in their past. That control is only ever
partial, in varying degrees.

An honest response to that fact is to apportion responsibility only for
those choices we know the person has control over, to the extent they
actually have that control.

To people who experience a decline in learning ability as they age, I
say: Welcome here, and please keep learning at your own speed.

 \        “You don't change the world by placidly finding your bliss — |
  `\        you do it by focusing your discontent in productive ways.” |
_o__)                                       —Paul Z. Myers, 2011-08-31 |
Ben Finney

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