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Mental Agility at Any Age

Written by Paul Wolf

You may be set in your ways, but that doesn't mean you are slower in learning new skills.

Myth: Learning new skills becomes harder as you get older.

Truth: Not if you can help it.

Helpful tips on Successful Aging:

Reinvention in Mid-Life
Mid-life road map

You eat the same breakfast cereal, take the same bus route to and from work, and read the paper in the same chair every day. Are you in danger of becoming another Archie Bunker? (Hint: if you're a baby boomer you'll remember).

You are definitely set in your ways. But does that mean you are slower to learn new skills than a younger person? Not necessarily.

You should be just as quick to learn how to drive a stick shift, switch from a Mac to a PC platform, or master online banking.

Generally, more habits don't imply less mental flexibility, says Michael Edelstein, a diplomat in behavioral-cognitive therapy with a practice in San Francisco.

"People as they get older tend to be more rigid in their habits because they reinforce what they believe," he says. "That has nothing to do with learning ability, which is very individual."

When you observe a young person's technical savvy, you may think you are seeing the triumph of youth over experience, when in actuality it is experience at work.

True enough, there are many reasons why a middle-age person might be more likely to avoid learning a new skill:

Habits. You've been using a day planner since college. Why switch to Google Calendar?

Talent. You solved Rubik's Cube a long time ago. There are only so many such discoveries you can make in a lifetime.

Interest. You haven't gotten around to learning a martial art because, frankly, you've put other interests first.

Burned by experience. Ever since you tried to install the garage door opener and failed at it, you've given yourself the message you're not mechanical.

Reliance on others. It's your wife's job to program Pandora. Besides, you weren't really listening when she showed you how to do it.

Many of these issues can face young people as well, Edelstein says. Open-mindedness in the face of novelty is highly individual.

Notice how over the years your interests have changed. Did you ever think you'd take such an interest in windsurfing? Inevitably, motivation propels learning.

At midlife, we often adopt a habit we don't think about the tendency to say, "I can't" when we really mean, "I won't."