Study: Seniors can keep memory, brain strong by learning multiple skills simultaneously

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — As children grow up they absorb as much new information as possible and learn multiple new skills on an almost daily basis. This thirst for knowledge tends to fade away as we grow old, and many people avoid learning new skills past a certain age. Well, a new study finds that older adults who continue learning multiple new skills simultaneously enjoy improved memory skills and cognitive control.

According to researchers at the University of California – Riverside, older adults should do their best to emulate children’s learning behaviors. That is, be curious, seek out new interests, stay motivated, and find an environment and peer group that will encourage these pursuits. Ultimately, this will lead to a sharper frame of mind in old age and increased independence.

Previous studies have already found a connection between learning new skills and improving mental functioning in older adults, but all of the prior research focused on learning each new skill one at a time.

For this study, researchers asked an experimental group of adults aged 58-86 to simultaneously take three to five classes for a total of five months. This averaged out to about 15 hours per week of learning for each participant. Some of the classes included Spanish, how to use an iPad, music composition, painting, and photography. There was also a control group included that did not take any classes.

Participants completed cognitive tests before, during, and after taking the courses. These tests measured working memory, cognitive control, and episodic memory.

Amazingly, all of the experimental group participants exhibited significantly improved cognitive functioning after just one and a half months. In fact, their mental functioning improved so much that it resembled cognitive levels typically associated with middle-aged adults, which would be a 30 year difference for some participants. The control group did not display any cognitive improvements at all.

“The participants in the intervention bridged a 30 year difference in cognitive abilities after just 6 weeks and maintained these abilities while learning multiple new skills,” explains study author Rachel Wu in a release.

“The take-home message is that older adults can learn multiple new skills at the same time, and doing so may improve their cognitive functioning,” Wu says. “The studies provide evidence that intense learning experiences akin to those faced by younger populations are possible in older populations, and may facilitate gains in cognitive abilities.”

The study is published in The Journals of Gerontology.

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