For anyone over 25 planning to go back to school, there's no shortage of things to worry about.
What should you do about child-care, or holding down a part-time (or maybe even full-time) job? Is the financial investment worth it at this stage in your life? Do you really want to be that geezer in the college seminar who keeps preaching about how things were back in the day? Would you have to get one of those trendy diagonal haircuts?
But the hardship of being the Rodney Dangerfield of Psych 101 goes deeper than the wrinkles setting you apart from your classmates. Behind that "non-traditional-student" face is a brain that might not be up for college-course work not the way it used to be.
As you enter your late 20s and early 30s, you may start noticing that your reaction time is a little slower. Your vision is a little fuzzier; your hearing is a little less sharp. You may not be grasping for nouns or griping about senior moments that's still a couple decades down the line but is your brain already headed toward inevitable decline? Can you really keep up with those feisty undergrads and their still-supple minds?
Getting back into the swing of full-time academics may be tough, but you can take solace in knowing that, unless you're already qualifying for senior-citizen discounts, your brain is still working with you, not against you.
Everything at once
The brain is constantly engaged in a sort of spring cleaning, pruning away the neurons and connections that aren't being used. That, in turn, allows us to be faster and more efficient at tasks that we do a lot, explains Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It also means we have a harder time learning new things, or doing things we haven't done in years.
"At any point in life, if you don't do something for a long time, you get rusty," Fischer says. For older returning students, that rustiness can be frustrating, especially when faced with math or foreign-language requirements, which call on skills that may have been dormant for more than a decade.
Another potential weakness among older students is their declining ability to multitask. That's a particular liability in college, when you need to be able to write a paper while tuning out the background noise of a rowdy dorm, or take notes while listening to a lecture and looking at a PowerPoint slide.
Trouble with multitasking can begin as early as age 30, according to a study conducted by Allison B. Sekuler, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at McMaster University, in Canada. When looking at 176 subjects between the ages of 15 and 84, the ability to handle divided-attention tasks showed "a gradual, linear loss across the age ranges." People in their 30s, she says, had significantly more trouble with multitasking than people in their 20s.
Hope for tired intellects
There is good news, though: The brain is incredibly flexible and can be trained. Sekuler found, for example, that when subjects repeated divided-attention tasks for an hour a day for multiple days in a row, the age-based differences in ability virtually disappeared.
The idea of brain training has gotten a lot of attention recently. Proponents of the "use it or lose it" approach to brain aging argue that engaging in mental calisthenics crossword puzzles, word games, Sudoku may stave off age-related memory loss and dementia.
Rather than relying on crossword puzzles, word games or even video games to stay sharp, Harvard's Fischer recommends that older students brush up on two key skills: writing essays that make an argument and reading books quickly and efficiently.
Once older students scrape off the rust, according to Fischer, they are likely to find themselves at an advantage. "In terms of brain functioning, the 30-year-old or 35-year-old actually has major advantages over the 18-year-old because they've developed capacities that the 18-year-old doesn't have yet," he says.
In the typical process of brain development, Fischer explains, it isn't until around age 20 that people can relate multiple abstract concepts, so an older student will have an easier time working with complex philosophical ideas than will an 18-year-old who is still developing those capacities.
There are other obvious advantages to having a little life experience before entering the classroom. People who have already been in the workforce are often better at budgeting their time and asking for help, according to several professors who have had older students in their classes. Older students are also likely to be more committed to their education than are students who are simply following an expected path.
Sometimes, though, the best way for an old dog to learn new tricks is to revert to childhood. That's what Fischer found when he studied a group of 20- and 30-year-olds learning how to use Lego robots.
"The adults who did the best figuring them out acted a lot like little kids: exploring the objects, trying lots of actions with them, playing with them like a 2-year-old or a 6-year-old would," Fischer says. "If you're learning something new the newer it is the more this is true you need to let yourself be like a kid."
Samantha Henig is an editorial intern at the Boston bureau of Newsweek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.