A new study finds that learning multiple things at the same time increases cognitive abilities in older adults.
One important way to avoid cognitive decline as we age is to learn new skills as a child would, according to University of California Riverside psychologist Rachel Wu.
“The natural learning experience from infancy to emerging adulthood mandates learning many real-world skills simultaneously,” Wu’s research team writes in a study published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences.
Previous studies have demonstrated the cognitive gains of older people learning new skills, such as photography or acting. But these skills were learned one at a time or sequentially, the researchers noted.
For the new study, researchers asked adults between the ages of 58 and 86 to simultaneously take three to five classes for three months — about 15 hours a week, similar to an undergraduate course load. The classes included Spanish, learning to use an iPad, photography, drawing/painting, and music composition.
The participants completed cognitive assessments before, during, and after the studies to gauge working memory, such as remembering a phone number for a few minutes, cognitive control, which is switching between tasks, and episodic memory, such as remembering where you’ve parked.
After just a month and a half, participants increased their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults, 30 years younger, the researchers reported. Control group members, who did not take classes, showed no change in their performance.
“The participants in the intervention bridged a 30 year difference in cognitive abilities after just six weeks and maintained these abilities while learning multiple new skills,” said Wu, who is an assistant professor of psychology.
“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,” she continued. “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.”