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Why is it harder to adapt yourself to different cultures, places, and languages as you age? What makes breaking up with emotional patterns or ideas after years of habit more difficult?

Is there a natural process in which the neuron's synapses are set, while later in life the plasticity of the brain is nearly lost?

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    $\begingroup$ I think you need to first provide some evidence that is actually is more difficult. (Leaving out degenerative disease &c, of course.) You're perhaps confusing a lack of desire with a lack of ability. After all, most of us spend much of our lives arranging our circumstances in ways that we enjoy. Without some strong motivation, why should we want to change? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 23 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think age is the major factor. There is plenty of evidence that physical and mental exercise are both important. Most people stop being forced to learn after school, and most people don't take the initiative to continue to do so on their own. Procedural thinking gives way to repetition and reliance on declarative memory; people fall into patterns in their lives that do not require them to continue learning but simply re-inforce what they already know once it is sufficient to get through life with. Without regular practice, the skill atrophies. $\endgroup$ – J... Sep 23 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ By contrast, plenty of people are engaged in work that does require them to continue learning - sometimes intensely so - for the duration of their careers. Among those people, my experience is that learning gets easier and faster with age since it builds upon mental tools, information, and experiences that have already been internalized. In the same way that it's harder to lift weights when you haven't exercised in 20 years, so too is it difficult to suddenly put demands on the brain after leaving it idle for a similar period. $\endgroup$ – J... Sep 23 at 19:37
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The answer(s) to this question can fill libraries. But I can give a few pointers here, as the question is relevant and timely, giving the tendency to an ever increasing life expectancy of the general populace in developed countries (notable exception: US).

I think your question can broadly be answered by the fact that degenerative processes in the brain slowly, but steadily, impairs all of its functions. Possible reasons for the specific decreased capability of the brain to adapt itself to new situations are:

  • The hippocampus plays a critical role in forming memory representations that are important for flexible cognition and social behavior (Rubin et al., 2014). Decreasing hippocampal neurogenesis during aging may impair the functioning of the hippocampus (Couillard-Despres et al., 2011)
  • Degenerative processes in the striatum impairs implicit learning that is necessary for mastering new tasks (Rieckmann & Bäckman, 2009);
  • Deficits in serotonin and dopamine neuromodulation in various brain structures due to degenerative processes during aging results in decreased learning and decision making (Eppinger et al., 2013);
  • Age-related altered neurosteroid levels may impair cognitive abilities (Vallée et al., 2011).

And the list goes on.

References
- Couillard-Despres et al., Gerontol (2011); 57: 559–64
- Eppinger et al., Ann N Y Acad Sci (2011); 1235: 1–17
- Rieckmann & Bäckman, Neuropsychol Rev (2009); 19(4): 490–503
- Rubin et al., Front Hum Neurosci (2014); 8: 742
- Vallée et al., Brain Res Rev (2001); 37(1–3): 301-312

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There is growing evidence that loss of learning capacity is not primarily age related

Below are just a few articles on this topic... I know there's more.

The short answer is, there is growing evidence that the loss of memory and learning capabilities is NOT a foregone conclusion of aging by itself, but is, in fact, a byproduct of other health issues, specifically not controlling blood pressure and not being "heart healthy". From a layman's view, this is because damage to the small blood vessels in the brain will slowly damage the surrounding nerve tissue. If this occurs, you end up with all the affects that AliceD points out.

The point is: Do not assume that loss of learning is "just a fact of aging".

References:

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    $\begingroup$ I felt the need to downvote because the cited references do not support the title conclusion of the answer. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Sep 23 at 21:20

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