The saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” can be (wrongfully) applied to humans, and with said application comes a lot of damaging—not to mention false—presumptions.
Researchers like Rachel Wu et al., who recently published findings of two studies from the peer-reviewed journal Aging and Mental Health, challenge this stereotype with data. According to the research conducted in each of these studies, learning new things as you age is great for your health—especially when it comes to your brain.
The studies conducted with adults over the age of 55 found that those who engaged in learning multiple skills simultaneously, such as learning a new language, photography, and how to use an iPad, showed significant improvement in cognitive functioning. (The approach was to select activities that cater to diverse interests and hold practical value in daily life, such as language learning, art, and music composition.)
The studies conducted with adults over the age of 55 found that those who engaged in learning multiple skills simultaneously (such as learning a new language, photography, and how to use an iPad) showed significant improvement in cognitive functioning.
What’s more, the results of this research specifically showed that learning multiple new things at once led to higher cognitive scores both three, six, and 12 months after the study had taken place. (I.e. participants showed lasting improvement up to an entire year later.) The participants scored cognitively similar to undergraduate college students who similarly been absorbing high amounts of information simultaneously.
As mentioned in the study’s discussion, “[These] findings are atypical compared to prior research, although they were predicted based on our lifespan theoretical framework.” Meaning the results of much of the prior research on cognitive functioning over time tells a different story, generally emphasizing the ways in which a person’s brain health stays the same or diminishes the same or decline over time.
How learning impacts brain health as you age
“Neuroplasticity, the capacity of the human brain to adapt and learn new skills, remains an essential factor in promoting cognitive resilience and maintaining overall cognitive well-being throughout one’s life,” says Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OTR, a doctor of occupational therapy. Learning new skills simultaneously creates new neural pathways in the brain, so it makes sense that it would engage more parts of your brain than going about life as usual.
According to Dr. Bahr, when you think about learning multiple things at once, you also have to use parts of your brain that structure your time, remember items that you need, plan where and when you need to be, organize your memory of each subject, and build upon that knowledge. “The study focused on executive function, which encompasses working memory and cognitive control, and verbal episodic memory, both of which can be impacted by the natural aging process,” she says. The fact that older adults scored cognitively similarly to undergraduate students is promising, especially when considering the cognitive challenges older folks can face with age.
Dr. Bahr adds that there are a lot of encouraging details about this (albeit small) study, and that those interested in optimizing their brain functioning as they age by engaging in new activities might considering seeking guidance from an occupational therapist. “They’re professionals in helping people participate, regain, or strategize accommodations they might need to incorporate into their lifestyle after an injury or to cope with an existing disability,” she says.
What to know before diving ‘head first’
Some folks may need to proceed with caution when it comes to pursuing rehabilitative activities or cognitively engaging activities. “Namely, it’s important to have clearance from a care provider if you or a loved one is thinking about engaging in something similar and there is any injury, traumatic brain injury, cognitive condition, or other extenuating circumstance that could worsen as a result of increased exertion of mind or body,” says Dr. Bahr.
“Namely, it’s important to have clearance from a care provider if you or a loved one is thinking about engaging in something similar and there is any injury, traumatic brain injury, cognitive condition, or other extenuating circumstance that could worsen as a result of increased exertion of mind or body,” says Dr. Bahr.
It can also be emotionally challenging to embark on a journey of learning new things—and frustration can get in the way of committing to a practice long-term. Getting a good night’s sleep after an intensive learning experience can help the brain commit the lesson or experience to memory better than without quality sleep. “It’s important to prioritize shuteye following intensive learning sessions, as this enhances memory retention and the consolidation of new information,” says Dr. Bahr.
Sometimes it can feel silly to get super into a new hobby, or a few—but this research suggests there’s merit to retaining curiosity and a desire to learn new things. This is your sign to consider taking that extra trip to the art supply store or finally trying out water aerobics…a healthy brain loves having fun, after all.