4 Top Reasons Why You’re Never Too Old to Learn

By Jessica Migala |

Curiosity doesn’t have an expiration date. Your mind was designed to acquire knowledge at any age.

older woman in a classroom for a story on why you're never too old to learn something new

It’s time to flip the script on that outdated idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You absolutely can. In fact, it’s important that seniors continue to learn new things for as long as possible.

“The quickest way to become an old dog is not to learn new tricks,” says George Rebok, Ph.D. He is a professor emeritus at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Continuing to learn can help you stay independent and live a long, high-quality life, says Rebok. “We live in such a dynamic society and complex environment that when you stop learning, you’re quickly behind,” he says.

Beyond staying current, learning provides ways to connect with others. Plus, studying new information and skills expands your brain’s capacity. Rebok says the investment of time, energy and effort are worth it.

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Here are four reasons you want to keep learning.

1. An Older Brain Still Has the Ability to Grow

“Our brains have plasticity up to very late in life,” says Rebok. Plasticity means that the brain is forming new connections that help us move, use our senses and learn.

An analysis of 215 studies on brain training in late adulthood found that learning improves plasticity, or your ability to stay sharp as you age. The same research also found that older adults who learned new things could reverse some of the memory loss and slower processing that can happen with age.

To learn something new, you may have to get creative. “You may have to seek out more novel learning experiences, since you’ve already learned a lot in your lifetime,” says Rebok.

That could mean trying something entirely new, like whipping up a three-layer cake when you’ve never even tried to bake. Or give an old activity a new twist, such as learning to line dance when you already know how to fox trot.

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2. It’s Fun to Feel Like a School Kid

Remember how you learned about a variety of subjects every day in school, including art, science, literature, history and a new language? You can do that when you’re older, too.

Research shows that an older adult’s brain is still primed to absorb many new things at once. One recent study, co-authored by Rebok and Rachel Wu, Ph.D., had older adults learn three real-world skills at the same time. Those skills included Spanish, drawing, painting, music composition or how to use an iPad.

After six weeks, research participants reported improved memory. And there was one really surprising part. Their newfound brain power was similar to that of adults who were decades younger.

“We know that learning is important for kids. They need certain skills to survive in the world,” says Wu. She’s an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “We also have to learn new things to survive as adults, especially as older adults,” she says.

3. You Can Still Handle Harder Stuff

Many seniors take hobby classes. That might include ceramics, art, sewing or playing an instrument. These activities help build brain capacity. Plus, they are social and absolutely worth doing. But your mind can probably still handle academic pursuits as well.

What does that look like? Maybe you take some challenging history courses online or a philosophy class at your local community college or library. Consider other subjects like physics or calculus, too, says Rebok.

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A study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that taking adult-education classes can improve your ability to reason and problem-solve. The researchers also found that when study participants challenged themselves intellectually, they lowered their risk of getting dementia.

4. It’s Essential To Keep up With the Times

Modern-day life changes rapidly. So making an effort to stay current with technology can boost your brain health, too, says Wu.

Instead of automatically handing over your phone or laptop to a younger family member, see if you can figure out what you’re trying to accomplish yourself. Most apps and programs have video tutorials and step-by-step instructions that make it easier to get up to speed. Or see if you can find a YouTube video tutorial that can help.

Recommended reading: The Happiness Boost from Lifelong Learning, Why SilverSneakers Members Love Our Classes

See our sources:
Learning as older adult: Psychology and Aging
Learning multiple things at once: The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Adult-education classes: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience

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