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Turning Back the Learning Clock for Seniors

Older adults who learned multiple new skills at the same time improved their cognitive function to the level of people 30 years younger, two small prospective studies showed.

After 3 months of learning in an “encouraging” classroom environment, the composite score on a battery of cognitive function tests improved significantly from baseline (P=0.003). Individual components of the assessment also improved significantly, particularly during the first 6 weeks.

The findings may have implications for long-term functional independence, which requires learning new skills to adapt to a changing environment, Rachel Wu, PhD, of the University of California Riverside, and coauthors reported online in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Psychological Sciences.

“Learning is totally necessary, no matter how old you are,” Wu told MedPage Today. “As the world changes — with technological advances and things like that — if you’re not learning to keep up, you’re going to be dependent on someone else.”

The findings are complementary to those of other studies that focused on cognitive reserve and strategies to preserve or slow the decline of cognitive functioning with aging. However, the real payoff of “mental exercise” activities is maintenance of functional independence, said Wu. Previous research provided evidence of improved cognitive functioning in older adults who learned a new skill or who learned several skills in sequence. In general, the studies showed improvement only in abilities required for the skill.

In contrast, the natural learning experience of infancy to adulthood “mandates learning multiple real-world skills simultaneously,” Wu and coauthors wrote. They hypothesized that the same approach would be feasible for older adults and would improve cognitive abilities and functional independence, even if the skills were not directly related to the cognitive and functional independence assessments.

“We wanted to put older adults back into the same learning environment as kids, which included having very good teachers, a very supportive environment, and learning a bunch of new things,” said Wu. “How much is that environment actually driving development? We know that it drives development and growth early in the lifespan, because kids who don’t go to school, who aren’t in that kind of environment, also decline. I can see a lot of parallels between older adults who aren’t learning as much and kids who aren’t learning as much.”

Participants and Methods

Investigators recruited healthy, community-dwelling older adults for two studies. The first included 15 participants, who were assigned to intervention and control groups. The second study included 27 individuals, all of whom participated in the intervention. Women accounted for two-thirds of participants in both studies, and the 42 total participants ranged in age from 58 to 86.

In the first study, participants in the intervention group learned Spanish, painting, and how to use an iPad. For the second study, investigators added music composition and drawing to the classes and randomly assigned participants to three of the five skills.

Study 1 lasted 15 weeks, and the second study was shortened to 12 weeks after consultation with the participants.

The intervention included three 2-hour classes weekly, consisting of lectures, class assignments, and group exercises. Additionally, Wu led an informal discussion session after the third class. People assigned to the control group in the first study did not attend classes or the discussions.

The class instructors were age 55 or older, degreed, and had teaching experience. Two of the three led classes in skills they had learned after retirement, reinforcing the idea that new skills can be learned later in life. They also had the option to sit in on classes they were not leading.

Participants in the first study completed a battery of tests at baseline, 8 weeks, and 15 weeks. The tests included assessments of working memory, cognitive control (how goals or plans influence behavior), and episodic memory (recalling a word list).

For the 27-person intervention study, the first assessment occurred 4 to 6 weeks prior to the intervention (baseline), then at the start of the intervention (pretest), and at 6 and 12 weeks. Investigators added two more measures of working memory, including a digit-sequence recall activity.

Participants in both studies completed a measure of functional independence (including questions about daily tasks).

Key Findings

In the first study, the intervention group showed significant improvement at the 6-week mark in composite cognitive scores, cognitive control, working memory, and episodic memory. At 3 months, cognitive control and episodic memory remained significantly improved versus baseline, whereas the composite score and working memory did not. The control group showed no significant improvement in any of the measures.

Results of the second intervention study showed significant improvement at 6 weeks in the composite score, cognitive control, and working memory but not digit recall . At the 3-month assessment, the composite and working memory scores remained significantly improved but not the other two.

Scores on the functional assessment improved in both studies. The intervention group in the first study improved from a mean of 74.23% at baseline to 86.19% at the end of the intervention, whereas the mean for the control group declined from 81.11% to 78.62%. The mean score in the second study improved from 82.46% to 88.27%.

Wu said the magnitude of improvement observed 6 weeks into the intervention put the older adults’ cognitive abilities on par with those of people 30 years younger.

Principal support for the study came from the American Psychological Foundation Visionary Grant.

The authors reported having no relevant disclosures.