To Stay Sharp as You Age, Learn New Skills (SciAm)

Who here is working on new languages, new musical instruments, new academic credentials…?

In this intervention, we provided an encouraging learning environment to 33 older adults between 58 and 86 years of age. Before and after this three-month intervention, we tested participants’ cognitive abilities, including attention and working memory. (The latter capacity helps people hold information in their head for tasks such as remembering the digits of a new phone number.) Older adults in this program were assigned three classes that met weekly, each session lasting two hours, to learn three new skills. Course options included singing, drawing, iPad use, photography, Spanish language learning and music composition. Once a week, we discussed issues related to learning barriers, motivation and successful aging with our participants.

Over the course of the intervention, people significantly improved their cognitive scores for memory and attention. In a follow-up study, we discovered that the participants had not only maintained their gains but had improved further: their cognitive abilities after one year were similar to those of adults 50 years younger. In other words, giving these seniors a supportive and structured three-course routine—much like an undergraduate student’s schedule—seemed to eventually improve their memory and attention to levels similar to that of a college student.


Self-study counts too. I read college textbooks but have no desire to re-engage in structured learning.


My life has been filled by grand obsessions, from music and poetry to philosophy and physics. I am now deep into a study of the prime numbers. Among the many glorious things I have learned along the way are the zeta function, the logarithmic integral function, and Euler’s Product Formula. My most fervent wish is that rapa will keep me alive so I can learn more mathematics.


I’m learning a new language. I practice by reading fiction in the language I’m learning, and doing language exchange with other people online. I find it pretty easy to keep up with and fun , which is key.

I also know that in about 10 years (close to, or after retiring) , I’ll go back to college to possibly earn a new degree.


I think this forum counts as studying as well.


Thinking about learning the guitar, but certain I will be banned to the basement as my wife and son are recoiled by my renditions of Koom ba ya and Sweet Home Alabama at slow speed

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'A novel lifespan theory provides an approach for maximizing long-term cognitive gains in older adulthood, perhaps beyond what is currently known…this theory posits that providing older adults with rich learning environments akin to learning environments from childhood may yield considerable immediate and long-term cognitive gainsthe theory proposes six key ingredients that allow learning experiences to promote cognitive growth: open-minded input-driven learning (e.g. learning completely new skills), individualized scaffolding (tailored help from instructors), growth mindset (belief that one’s abilities can improve with effort), forgiving environment (being allowed to make mistakes, no negative stereotypes about novel learning), serious commitment to learning (e.g. spending several hours a week to learn difficult skills), and learning multiple skills simultaneously. These six factors may account for a portion of the considerable cognitive gains during infancy to young adulthood…the rich learning environments from infancy to young adulthood including these factors typically dwindle after young adulthood (from the last formal year of education), perhaps making it more difficult for adults, especially older adults, to maintain or develop cognitive abilities.


Read the paper. It’s insane.

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I read this a while ago and was intrigued. It made me seriously consider taking a few months off and going to college to learn some new skills. Maybe we should be considering a second education for adults over 50. It might have all sorts of benefits for the workforce and help prevent cognitive decline further down the line. Perhaps all older brains need is a similar environment that children learn in.


Trying to learn how to play the piano.


And of course… keep on exercising - probably at a higher level!

A study published earlier this year relied on genetic data to explore the effects of exercise. A team led by sports scientist Boris Cheval at the University of Geneva grouped about 350,000 people in the United Kingdom according to genetic variants associated with more or less physical activity. Those with an apparent genetic predisposition to be more active also tended to perform better on a set of cognitive tests, the researchers concluded in Scientific Reports.

Other studies have focused on age-related cognitive decline. Research published in February in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry tracked more than 1400 people for 30 years, showing that more physical activity was associated with better cognitive performance at age 69.

But other studies suggest the amount of exercise matters. A randomized trial published in January in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy showed improved cognition only in older adults who upped their physical activity by at least 35%.

Is exercise actually good for the brain?

New research suggests the cognitive benefits of physical activity are not so clear-cut

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My personal belief is, that physical activity, especially resistance training is good for healthspan, but my observation from going to various gyms for decades is that there are many, more men at the gym than women. “Gym memberships are split nearly equally between men (49.5%) and women (50.5%)” and yet, where are they?
In any case, women are still living longer than men.

“Eleven studies included confounding risk factors for mortality and revealed an increase in life expectancy by 0.4 to 4.2 years with regular physical activity.”

What I am doing to maintain hand-brain coordination is practicing my touch typing every day and trying to increase my errorless speed. So in a sense, this is learning a new skill.


Here are some interesting slides from the Longevity Summit last December that might explain what you are seeing and the results of the lower exercise level…

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I am a recently retired dentist, and last year, became a board-certified lactation consultant. I also now play pickleball and love it! Racket sports are said to be good for the brain by improving hand- eye coordination…


Do you have the percentage male/female split here on the forum? Always surprises me that there aren’t more women.

It seems like women are more interested in mitigating visual aging while men are more interested in combating physical aging.

That seems a little sexist (or maybe a lot), although societal pressure on appearance for women is without doubt true.
I don’t know why there wouldn’t be just as many women as men interested in extending healthspan/lifespan.

I don’t have any data in male/female ratio here. I would guess around 70/30. We need to do a poll.