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Learning multiple skills at once boosts cognitive abilities in older adults

As we age, our cognitive abilities age with us. Older adults find it harder to remember certain things or complete more difficult mental tasks as they age, but is there a way to reverse these natural effects of aging?

A new study published in The Journals of Gerontology has found that learning several new things at once can increase cognitive abilities in older adults. Previous studies have demonstrated the cognitive gains of older people learning new skills, but in these studies the skills were learned one at a time or sequentially.

In this study led by UC Riverside psychologist Rachel Wu, researchers had adults 58 to 86 years of age take 3 to 5 classes simultaneously for three months.

The natural learning experience from infancy to emerging adulthood mandates learning many real-world skills simultaneously,” the researchers say. The classes included Spanish, photography, drawing/painting, music composition, and learning how to use an iPad.

The participants took cognitive assessments before, during, and after the studies to measure working memory, cognitive control, and episodic memory. Results showed that after only 1.5 months, participants increased their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults. The control group who did not take any classes showed no change in their performance.

The participants in the intervention bridged a 30-year difference in cognitive abilities after just 6 weeks and maintained these abilities while learning multiple new skills,” says Wu. “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. 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.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Natalie Board

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