Senior man using a digital tablet

Learning several new things at once increases cognitive abilities in older adults, according to new research from UC-Riverside.

Building on lifelong learning research, 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.

For UCR researcher Rachel Wu’s study, researchers asked adults 58 to 86 years old to simultaneously take three to five classes for three months — about 15 hours per 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 45 days, participants increased their cognitive abilities to levels like those of middle-aged adults, 30 years younger. 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,” says Wu, 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,” 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 University of California, Riverside is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to communities around the world. Visit ucr.edu for more information.

Recommended for you