Old people learn new skills faster if it helps others – but youngsters learn more quickly when they are making choices that benefit themselves, study finds


  • Researchers led by Birmingham recruited 75 young and 77 senior adults
  • They had complete tests selecting one of two symbols for the digits.
  • In some points equal to money for the player, in others money for someone else
  • Older adults were as quick as younger ones to make money for others
  • The team also noted fewer self-reported psychopathic symptoms in older adults.

Older people can learn new skills faster if doing so benefits other people rather than themselves – unlike younger adults, who learn faster when helping themselves.

This is the conclusion of a study by researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Oxford, who conducted tests involving so-called reinforcement learning.

It is this understanding that we develop from assessing the positive consequences of our past choices – enabling us to adapt our decisions to our environment.

The team said the finding that older people are more motivated to learn when it helps others may help experts find new ways to combat age-related cognitive decline.

The team also found that older people appeared to be more likely to ‘get older’ with psychopathic symptoms such as lack of empathy, perhaps explaining the results.

One study found that unlike young adults, who learn faster when helping themselves, older people can learn new skills faster if it benefits other people.

psychopathic traits and age

As part of the study, the team also asked each participant to complete a test to assess the level of their psychopathic symptoms — such as a lack of empathy or concern for others.

In the findings the researchers called ‘astonishing’, they found that levels of these symptoms were lower in the older group, suggesting that it may not be fixed over a person’s lifetime, but fade away with age.

According to the team, lower levels of psychopathic traits in older adults may explain why they learn faster when they benefit others.

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‘Reinforcement learning is one of the key ways in which humans – as well as animals and even plants – learn from and adapt to their environment,’ said paper author and neuroscientist Patricia Lockwood from the University of Birmingham.

‘We need to make decisions and learn all the time based on the positive or negative feedback we receive. This allows us to optimize our options to choose the best course of action in the future from the many possible alternatives.’

‘We find that older adults do worse than younger adults at learning from positive feedback on their behavior.’

‘However, surprisingly, when making choices that respond positively to another person – money – older adults are just as good as younger adults.’

In their study, Dr. Lockwood and her colleagues recruited 152 participants – nearly half of whom were aged 18-36, the remainder between the ages of 60-80.

Each participant took part in a series of trials in which they were asked to choose between one of two symbols displayed on a computer screen.

After each selection they made, the subject received feedback on their decision – and whether or not they received award points as a result.

In some rounds, the points earned did not make sense, while in others they translated into money for the participants or for someone else.

The researchers found that the older group of participants was slower than the younger group at learning which options were better when their selection had the potential to benefit themselves financially.

However – when they were making choices that had the potential to benefit another person – older participants were seen to learn how to succeed in the game faster as younger test subjects.

When the points had no value and no financial motivation, the team found that participants in both age groups learned the slowest.

“We believe that in general, cognitive processes and learning ability deteriorate as people age,” said paper author and neuroscientist Joe Cutler from the University of Birmingham.

‘So it’s really interesting to see that when making choices that benefit others, the learning ability of older adults is preserved,’ she adds.

‘By better understanding what motivates older people in this way, we can contribute to strategies that promote healthy aging.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal nature communication.

Do diet and lifestyle tips maintain brain health in old age?

Scientists have uncovered dietary and lifestyle tips that keep the brain healthy in old age.

According to researchers around the world ‘what is good for the heart is good for the mind’.

They say that no one food acts as a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to improving or maintaining brain health.

Experts have put together the following diet and lifestyle advice to help people maintain their brain health as they age.

Eating lots of berries helps maintain people's brain health as they get older.

Eating lots of berries helps maintain people’s brain health as they get older.

Eat Plenty:

  • Jambolan
  • fresh vegetables, especially leafy vegetables
  • healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil
  • crazy
  • fish and seafood

Include the following in your diet:

  • Beans and other legumes
  • fruit
  • low fat dairy
  • poultry
  • Grain
Red meat intake should be limited

Red meat intake should be limited

Limit intake of:

  • fried food
  • pastry
  • processed foods
  • Red meat
  • full fat dairy
  • Salt

Other Tips:

  • be active
  • avoid overeating
  • Eat at least one meal a week with fish that is not deep fried
  • Pay attention to the level of salt in pre-made food
  • Use lemon, vinegar, herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of food instead of salt
  • Snack on Raw, Plain, Unsalted Nuts
  • eat vegetables of different colors
  • prepare food from scratch

Eleven researchers from the Global Council on Brain Health, including experts from the University of Exeter, met on 12-to-13 September 2017 to discuss the impact of diet on the brain health of adults over 50.

Their recommendations are based on an evaluation of studies examining the impact of…

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