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You can teach an old brain new tricks, study finds

[Oct. 11, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Researchers have long grappled with the stereotype that as we age, our learning potential dwindles. New studies challenge this belief. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

The adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, for generations has been colloquially tossed around, and many a time, erroneously transposed to human beings. Such an application brings with it a cascade of damaging—and undeniably untrue—assumptions about human aging and learning capabilities.

Researchers have long grappled with the stereotype that as we age, our learning potential dwindles. However, recent studies led by Rachel Wu et al. and published in the peer-reviewed journal, Aging and Mental Health, provide compelling evidence to challenge this belief. Their findings offer a refreshing perspective: embracing new learnings during our golden years can be tremendously beneficial, particularly for our cerebral health.


Diving into the Research: A New Horizon for Seniors

Spanning participants over the age of 55, the study meticulously evaluated the cognitive effects of learning multiple skills at once. This wasn't just any arbitrary set of skills. The researchers intentionally selected activities that would resonate with a wide range of interests and that have a tangible application in everyday life.

Cognitive composite scores from Study 1 and Study 2. The dotted lines represent the means of cross-sectional convenience samples of younger (n = 28, Mage = 19.07 years, SDage = 1.05, range: 18–22), middle-aged (n = 22, Mage = 42.36 years, SDage = 5.79, range: 35–51), and older adults (n = 43, Mage = 70.17 years, SDage = 9.34, range: 53–89). The younger adult mean score was 1.21, the middle-aged adult mean score was 0.98, and the older adult mean score was 0.33. Error bars represent ±1 SE. (CREDIT: Aging and Mental Health)

For instance, they included activities like language acquisition, photography, music composition, and mastering the use of tech gadgets such as the iPad.

And the results? They were nothing short of revelatory.


These senior participants didn’t just show a marginal improvement, but a significant uptick in their cognitive functioning. This wasn't a fleeting change either. The study underscores that the cognitive benefits endured, with participants consistently registering higher cognitive scores at three, six, and twelve months post the conclusion of the study. In an astonishing parallel, the cognitive scores of these older adults mirrored that of undergraduate college students who, during their academic pursuits, are immersed in absorbing vast volumes of information concurrently.

A noteworthy observation from the study states, “[These] findings are atypical compared to prior research, although they were predicted based on our lifespan theoretical framework.” Essentially, this means that while earlier studies painted a somewhat grim narrative about cognitive stagnation or decline with age, Wu and her team's research proposes a radically different and optimistic narrative.


The Science Behind the Findings: Brain Plasticity and Aging

But what precisely is happening within the brain that results in such marked improvement?

Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OTR, a distinguished doctor of occupational therapy, explains, “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.”


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Learning varied skills concurrently catalyzes the creation of new neural pathways. As you stretch your learning boundaries, your brain does too, integrating more regions than it would during regular, routine activities.

Dr. Bahr elaborates on the facets of the brain engaged during such multifaceted learning. As individuals grapple with assimilating multiple subjects, they tap into the areas of the brain responsible for structuring time, recalling essentials, planning, organizing memories, and then enhancing that knowledge. “The study’s spotlight was on executive function, which envelops working memory and cognitive control, and verbal episodic memory—areas which are generally vulnerable to the aging process,” she adds.


Notably, this research, although promising, is limited in scale. Dr. Bahr posits that older individuals aspiring to harness their brain potential might benefit from consulting occupational therapists. They are, after all, specialists in aiding individuals to either reintegrate, reclaim, or strategize life changes post-injury or while navigating disabilities.

A Cautionary Note: When Passion Meets Prudence

Despite the allure of these findings, it's essential to strike a balance. Dr. Bahr underscores the importance of obtaining a go-ahead from a medical professional, especially when pre-existing conditions like injuries, traumatic brain injuries, cognitive disorders, or any other potential risk factors are involved. "[It's crucial] to have clearance from a care provider if you or a loved one is contemplating such engagement," she reiterates.


Another dimension to consider is the emotional aspect. Plunging into a world of new learnings can be as overwhelming as it is exhilarating. The potential for frustration is real, and it's pivotal not to let this deter long-term commitment. Dr. Bahr offers a remedy: adequate rest. “Post intensive learning, quality sleep is paramount as it augments memory retention and consolidates new information,” she says.

Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OTR, a distinguished doctor of occupational therapy. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Ultimately, the message from this research is clear: the years might advance, but our potential to learn, adapt, and evolve remains undiminished. Whether it's a new hobby, an artistic pursuit, or even a physical activity like water aerobics, there’s scientific backing that curiosity, passion, and the quest for knowledge could be the elixir for a healthier, happier brain.


In the end, a playful and proactive mind might just be the best anti-aging secret out there. So, why not make that extra trip to the art store or dive into a new adventure? After all, as the research underscores, a thriving brain revels in joy and discovery.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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