Event: Fit For Work

Panel Advises How to Maintain Cognitive Fitness Through the Later Years on the job

by Nicky Penttila

March 30, 2007

Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks, so don’t be so quick to write off your older workers, a panel of workplace and neuroscience experts said this week.

“Plasticity lessens as we get older, but it’s still there,” said Richard Restak, a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, referring to the brain’s capacity to change and adapt to such things as new learning. People can always learn, he said, but as we age it takes longer and it might be a little harder.

“The training needs to be different: more repetition and more patience,” he said. In older brains, it takes a little longer to quickly retrieve a specific little bit of stored information, such the name of an actress in a film or what is the product number of the phones the company uses. But the trade-off is a richer memory for patterns, intricacies and relationships--what one could call wisdom, he said. Mixing generations, and their various methods of problem-solving, speed and skills, is ideal, he said.

Older, wiser workers also make great models, said Dawn Malone, administrative director of work and family services at Bon Secours Richmond Health System, during the forum, held at the Dana Center in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The health-care group was founded by nuns, who continue to work throughout their lives. “Our sisters work for us until well past retirement age: They don’t retire,” said Malone. “We have a heritage of examples” of active, productive service into later age, including several employees who are older than 75.

Hard-science research is still in early stages on what exactly people can do to maintain and improve their “cognitive fitness” as they grow older. Restak interviewed many high-achievers older than 70 for his 1997 book, Older & Wiser: How to Maintain Peak Mental Ability for As Long As You Live, and found 10 factors for healthy brain functioning, including keeping busy, a need for novelty and diversity, curiosity and continued learning, and maintaining friends and social networks.

The last item points out a change for many people in recent decades, he said. Many of us aren’t as close to our families as people once were, nor are we as closely tied to our local communities. Where do we socialize? The workplace.

“Never retire,” he said. “Look for new challenges.” If you do retire, think of it as retiring toward something (perhaps a new or more of an old interest or hobby), not from something.