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Longevity Briefs: Is Lack Of Curiosity An Age-Related Disease?

Posted on 18 January 2023

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: As children, we question almost everything we see or are told. By the time we are adults, we are much less driven to investigate the world around us, and this trend continues throughout life. While research suggests that older adults find it harder to learn new things, there’s more than that to the proverb: ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Older adults are, on average, less motivated to seek and acquire new information, experiences and skills, which might indirectly accelerate cognitive decline. How can we stay motivated to keep learning throughout life, and does this help slow cognitive ageing?

What did the researchers do: Researchers have studied how curiosity varies according to age for decades. This article provides a nice summary of the research concerning curiosity, motivation, and how they relate to cognitive function in older age.

Photo by Justin Heap on Unsplash

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Curiosity in humans is not easy to measure objectively, and so most research is based on participants’ self-reported willingness to seek new information. With that being said, there is consistent evidence to suggest that old age is associated with reduced interest in acquiring new knowledge. Research also supports that increased curiosity in old age is beneficial – older adults who were more curious had better memory and improved well-being on average. One study even suggested that low curiosity is associated with increased mortality.

The relationship between curiosity and cognitive ageing is likely to be a chicken-and-egg situation. A decrease in cognitive function and memory makes retaining new information harder, which makes older adults less motivated to seek it out, which in turn leads to more cognitive decline. However, curiosity isn’t just about willingness to initiate learning. Some research shows that older adults who rate information as more interesting are more likely to retain that information. That might sound obvious, but it is an important distinction to make. If you are curious about something, you are not only more motivated to seek out information, but you also learn more effectively.

These links between curiosity and cognition may be rooted in the brain’s dopaminergic system, which is critical for motivation and learning and whose function declines with age. Is curiosity something you can work on maintaining in older age? Will you delay cognitive ageing as a result? We don’t know for sure, but there’s little to be lost and plenty to be gained regardless. Practices that improve dopaminergic health are a good start – especially getting good quality sleep. Making an active effort to be more curious and keep learning new things throughout life may also be enough to improve cognitive health.

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