In most adults, learning and thinking plateau and then begin to decline after age 30 or 40. People start to perform worse in tests of cognitive abilities such as processing speed, the rate at which someone does a mental task. The slide becomes steeper after 60 years of age.
These changes are often ascribed to normal aging. But what if instead they represent something more like the “summer slide” that schoolchildren experience? Every year teachers and parents observe how summer vacations lead some children’s academic progress to backslide. During the COVID pandemic, many students missed the equivalent of at least seven to 10 weeks of in-person learning because of remote or reduced schooling. The resulting academic losses were uneven, with kids of different ages, abilities and resources being affected in varied ways.
Interrupted learning may not only affect children. After formal education and job training ends, many adults experience years, if not decades, of reduced or nonexistent learning opportunities. That’s a much longer pause than eight to 12 weeks of summer break or even a few years disrupted by a pandemic.
Our work suggests that the cessation of learning is indeed a setback for adults—but we have also found that this decline can be addressed. A three-month intervention we designed enhanced participants’ memory and attention so drastically that their abilities came to resemble those of adults 30 years younger at the program’s end. And amazingly, they continued to improve long after the classes were over.
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.
We are still investigating why cognitive scores continued to climb after the program’s end, but one possibility is that the experience encouraged these adults to continue learning and practicing new skills in daily life.
To be clear, we do not think that formal education is the only or most important way to support learning. Our idea is to instead create enriched environments for older adults, especially for those with few resources, so that they can increase both real-world skills and cognitive abilities over the long term.
If, as these studies indicate, interrupted learning is indeed a common feature of adulthood, many important implications follow. Researchers avoid the phrase “learning loss” when discussing childhood and adolescence because “loss” implies that the learning cannot be recovered. Older adults, meanwhile, are often assumed to be on a downward slope with unrecoverable loss. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Our work suggests that we need to apply a more hopeful mindset and vocabulary when discussing older people—much like that used for childhood or early adulthood. Decline, as we so often see it, may not be inevitable.
We can also set new priorities for older learners. In childhood we focus on the gain of particular skills, such as reading and math. By contrast, cognitive aging research has often focused on maintaining or increasing more general abilities, such as those related to attention and memory, typically through cognitive training, leisure activities and exercise. Older adult research tends to emphasize skill learning only after daily functions start to decline.
For those who have limited time or resources, encouraging new skill learning, as our interventions have done, may be especially advantageous. In later years many personal and societal changes—such as moving out of state to be closer to family members, switching jobs or coping with physical distancing from loved ones—make learning new skills necessary to adapt and succeed. For example, taking a class to improve technological skills could aid seniors’ success in an increasingly digital world, helping them use telehealth or online banking platforms.
The question is no longer whether we should pursue learning as adults but rather how society can optimize the environment to maximize opportunities. Educators and scientists know quite a bit about how to do this for children and adolescents, and we can adapt that knowledge to enhance existing opportunities and develop new challenging, useful and inclusive learning opportunities for adults. Researchers who work on the developmental and aging ends of the life span should share perspectives and communicate findings with one another. Finally, societies could provide resources and opportunities—particularly for older adults who are underserved or disadvantaged—to ensure that everyone can benefit from lifelong learning.
Let’s shift the conversation in adulthood from a focus on staving off loss and decline, or merely maintaining what people have, to a discussion of learning, growth and thriving.
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This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
A version of this article with the title “Stay Sharp as You Age” was adapted for inclusion in the October 2023 issue of Scientific American.