If you’re an older adult, you may have questions about whether you can still learn new things quickly and easily.
For the longest time, many people believed that the older you are, the less able you are to learn.
But neuroscience shows us that this is absolutely, completely false.
The human brain can continue learning at any age.
To answer the question “Can adults learn at any age” –
Yes. Absolutely, 100% yes.
You should continue to learn new things as you grow older, because it helps keep your brain sharp and even improves its overall health.
Plus, lifelong learning is scientifically proven to slow down or prevent the onset of cognitive decline and conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Neuroscientists explain precisely how adults at any age can learn faster through the brain’s natural neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
This term explains the incredible malleability of the brain and helps you build more connections between the neurons in your brain. More connections = more learning.
When you think about kids, their minds are like sponges because they can soak in so much knowledge easily and quickly – in fact, they learn more, in a shorter period of time, than any of us!
Children indeed have a higher volume of neurons than adults do.
It is also true though, as emerging studies keep proving, that the brain is completely capable of maintaining neuron health and even creating new neurons. (This is called Neurogenesis).
So, no matter what your age, you can keep growing and improving your brain.
Neuroplasticity describes this incredible adaptability of the brain, based on its experiences, so that is why when you keep learning throughout your life, your brain continues to improve – assuming you also nourish it with healthy brain foods and exercise too.
Neuroplasticity helps people recover from brain trauma, and function normally despite having one of your senses inhibited.
Remember Gabby Giffords, the U.S. Representative from Arizona? When she was shot, she lost her ability to speak, walk, read and write and do a number of other things.
But it was neuroplasticity that gave her back the ability to sing – and then learn to speak again, walk, read and write even though the portions of her brain responsible for those things had been seriously damaged.
The brain is a speedy learner and can shuffle and allocate neurons for specific functions if it senses that you need them.
Every time you learn something new, your brain forms new neural associations of that knowledge.
The more you continue to learn, the stronger these associations grow.
And the stronger these associations grow, the better the health of your brain, and the lesser the chance that you’ll experience cognitive decline with age.
And yes, this applies to people of every age!
So even if you feel intimidated trying to learn, or think you don’t have a good memory, the good news is that you can add just a few strategies and start new learning as easily as when you were a teenager!
Let’s Look at the Miracles of Neuroplasticity
In 1993, 58-year old John Basinger set to task memorizing the 60,000 words making up John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.
He could – and did, several times – repeat the entire thing from memory.
Dominic O’Brien became the UK and Pan European Memory Champion in 2018 at the age of 61.
He is an 8-time World Memory Champion!
The Smithsonian Magazine featured Irving Olson for his innovative photography techniques capturing droplets of water colliding, set up by himself in his kitchen at the age of 98.
At 90, Priscilla Sitienei became the oldest primary school student in 2015.
She started attending classes with her great-grandchildren in Kenya because she wanted to be able to read and write, to share valuable lessons with younger generations, and read the Bible.
All these things are possible because of your brain’s neuroplasticity.
Age doesn’t matter – you can continue to learn long past childhood and young adulthood, and become an expert at what you do, as these people have.
The amazing potential of your brain lets you do so – it definitively answers the question “Can adults learn at any age” with a big fat YES.
Do Older Adults Face Difficulties in Learning?
Research conducted by the Scientific American and corroborated by neuroscientists world over suggest that learning difficulties have nothing to do with age.
As you grow older, you might become apprehensive about trying new things.
You might not trust yourself to remember new things or learn new skills, compared to when you were younger.
But consider this – younger-you was in an environment optimized for studying.
In the classroom, at home, your teachers, family, and peers were positively reinforcing your learning efforts, celebrating your achievements, and supporting you through challenges.
The older you grow, the less present this sort of supportive, positive reinforcing learning environment is.
And this – a positive learning environment – might be the central factor influencing learning as you grow older.
You might argue that the people who achieved all these spectacular things at an older age might just be extraordinary, and perhaps they are to varying degrees.
But studies also show the capacity there is for how adults learn at any age.
In one study, a group of 58-86-year olds assigned to new classes like photography, music composition, and painting showed improved cognitive abilities comparable to people 30 years younger.
In another, 22 individuals aged between 63 and 80 years assigned to either dance or sport, boosted their cognitive learning, and showed an increase in the brain’s gray matter after just six months.
What Does This Mean for How Adults Learn At Any Age?
It simply means this:
Even if you think you can’t
And even if you feel you have a poor memory
Even if you feel like you’ve tried before
Or even if you think you can’t focus long enough to learn
Even if you’ve had negative experiences learning in the past
Anyone, including adults at any age, can learn faster.
All you need is a good understanding of how your brain works and the right strategies.
So, let’s take a look at the activities you can try to keep your cognitive abilities sharp and your brain growing to answer the question –
How can adults learn at any age, and how can they learn faster?
7 Ways Adults Learn at Any Age, and How They Can Learn Faster
1. Read More, and Read Better
A gentleman wrote to me asking:
“How can I increase my interest in book reading? In the last 5-10 years, I’ve found I am less interested in reading books but enjoy reading the daily newspaper and magazines. As a long-term member of a monthly book discussion group, I find myself often searching for and preferring audiobook versions of our current month’s selection. Occasionally this is due to the complex and/or overly-detailed writing style of the selected title.”
Losing interest in reading is something folks of all ages can face.
And often, the problem is as simple as not having the right reading strategies.
Part of the solution is knowing what your learning style is.
You’re never too old to find out how you learn best! (go here to take the free quiz to discover your learning style).
As this gentleman’s question suggests, he may actually be an auditory learner. Or at least he is preferring that modality when it comes to reading today.
Rather than reading long texts off the page, auditory learners find it easier to grasp and absorb information when they’re listening to it.
Ultimately, this doesn’t mean you’re bad at reading or are losing interest in it.
It means you “read” differently compared to people who find it easy to read books.
Rather than physical books, audiobooks and podcasts might be your cup of tea. And make sure when you listen, that you form mental movies of what are you are reading, because the brain remembers images more than the black squiggles that make up words on the page.
Figure out your learning style and the corresponding reading strategies that suit you the best.
Reading, particularly reading novels, is scientifically proven to improve your neuroplasticity through age.
A good book can transport you into a different world, letting you experience things you aren’t going through first-hand.
These experiences also create new neural connections in your head – all the more reason to keep feeding your brain as you grow older!
And speaking of feeding your brain –
2. Learn to Visualize
The best trick shared by memory champions, learning experts, and the fastest readers, is knowing how to visualize.
Visual learners do this naturally – they’re able to translate text and information into mental images.
These images are easier to recall than a series of words.
One of the techniques that has been in use since the time of the ancient Greeks is the Method of Loci, or the Mind Palace technique.
This technique involves visualizing a familiar space – your home, your bedroom, a well-known street.
As you mentally go down this mind journey in a systematic way, you imagine placing the things you’re learning at specific places one by one.
This practice helps you remember things far better by mnemonic association – creating mental images that have relevance to you, rather than text and words much harder to remember in sequence.
All you need to do to remember what you learned is to remember where you kept it in your Mind Palace!
Get as creative as you like with your visualization – ridiculous and funny imagery is not only more memorable but also encourages you to think outside the box.
This is another piece of advice I’d give to the gentleman who reached out to me in the previous section –
Reading might not feel interesting because it might register in your head as just words without meaning or relevance.
Visualizing gives them meaning and relevance to you, and in turn, can help speed up your ability to learn and recall the more you practice it.
After all, visualization and the Mind Palace technique is what memory champions like 61-year old Dominic O’Brien use to recall a series of random words and numbers in just a few minutes!
3. Learn a New Language
Maybe you’ve hit a certain age, and you think it’s impossible to learn a new language.
But think about how, before the Internet and translator apps became a thing, people would migrate from one country to another to work or settle down.
How did they do that?
Kids who migrate like this might have an easier time picking up the language, but again, this could be because of the environment –
Going to school, interacting with friends and teachers, etc.
What about the adults?
Recent studies find that there is no cut-off point at which you stop being able to learn a new language.
There is no “window” you might miss when it comes to learning a new language!
Learning a new language, at any age, is a great way to utilize your brain’s neuroplasticity.
As you learn the new rules and applications of a foreign tongue, your brain creates new neural pathways, and as you keep practicing, these pathways get stronger.
Not just your memory, but other cognitive abilities improve as well, as was the case in the Scientific American study where groups of elderly participants took Spanish classes.
Remember, kids might more naturally pick up a new language through trial and error, but as an adult, you also have an advantage.
You know how to approach something new and develop strategies to accomplish them methodically.
The best way to learn a new language is precisely the way you learned your first language – research calls this TPR – Total Physical Response.
First you need a listening period, then you want activities that connect you physically in every possible way with the language.
Handle everything just the way you did when you were a child learning your first language and in now time, you’ll feel like a word wizard!
It’s natural to worry when it comes to learning something completely new.
So, try and bring some of that positive reinforcement from when you were younger into your current learning!
Sign up for classes with folks of all ages or join local or online communities of people similar to you.
Involve your family and friends in the process!
4. Learn a New Instrument
I’ve met or heard of countless people who say they regret not learning an instrument when they were younger.
But instead of nursing that regret for the rest of your life, why not start now?
Yes, you won’t be able to pick up things as fast as a child can – but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up an instrument at all!
Neuroscience finds that the adult brain has everything it needs to learn a new instrument, and benefits from doing so.
All you need is the willpower and commitment to start.
And there’s plenty of good reason to.
One study shows that after just a few months of piano lessons, adults between ages 60 and 85 years displayed greater verbal fluency and faster cognitive processing.
According to a music neuroscientist, given enough time and commitment, adults can catch up to younger learners and heighten the same cognitive processes!
It’s easy to get anxious because you place expectations on your performance and the fear that you won’t meet up to them.
Let that all go – remember, your brain has an endless capacity for rewiring with new knowledge and experiences.
There’s no deadline, so approach that violin or the drums you wished you had picked up earlier, and help your brain grow for faster learning!
5. Travel More
Here’s an opportunity for adults at any age – travel!
Experiencing new sights, smells, places, foods, languages, weather are all things that create neural associations in your brain.
Travelling is also something you might have better resources for when you’re older than you would in your childhood or teens – make use of it!
Travel and explore and learn more about the world you live in.
It’s a great way of building new memories and enhance your brain because it’s continuously processing all these new stimuli.
Remember, any activity which boosts neuroplasticity doesn’t just improve your performance in that activity.
It improves your overall brain performance and, therefore, faster learning!
6. Try Natural Brain Boosters
Many naturally occurring nootropics can stimulate and enhance the brains functioning and slow down cognitive decline.
Protein supplements containing creatine, for example, have positive effects in treatments for Alzheimer’s.
It creates phosphocreatine in the brain, which, while boosting cognitive functioning, also helps prevent or slow down neurological decline.
Natural herbs like ginseng and gingko biloba are excellent choices and doctors even recommend them to counteract the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Then, of course, there are several nootropics (brain boosters) you can consume to give you a boost of mental activity when learning, like l-theanine.
Contained in black and green teas, this amino acid boosts the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.
They help you concentrate and therefore learn better, along with countering feelings of stress and anxiety.
I love ceremonial grade organic green tea.
It tastes great (way better than the culinary grade you’d cook with) and besides the brain boost, the l-theanine is a relaxant at the same time, which enhances focus.
Consider including fish oils in your diet too – in the form of fish or as supplements.
These contain the fatty acid Omega-3 critical for a healthy brain – they can help your brain health and improve your memory!
But do ask your doctor first – because they thin your blood too – so make sure to check in with your health care practitioner before taking them.
What you eat also impacts how well you can learn, so nix the bad carbs and as much sugar as possible.
7. Sports and Other Physical Activities
A healthy mind and a healthy body are a mutually inclusive deal.
So, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you were unable to maintain a certain standard of physical activity, you wouldn’t be able to pick it up at an older age.
Neuroscientists stress that brain growth and the prevention of neurological disorders can benefit more from learning new things than maintaining existing ones.
If you only focus on upkeeping what you already know, the potential for new neural connections withers away.
So, no matter your age, pick up a physical activity – do yoga, pick up a sport, try dancing!
I’m sure you’ve seen people in their 80’s and even 90’s teaching things like yoga to others the same age!
By learning new physical skills, you improve your motor functions as well as promote brain growth as it develops this new skill set of yours.
Best of all? Physical activity can put you in a great mood because of the endorphins released, which also help keep your brain sharp for learning!
So here are several ways you can work on your brain and develop strategies to so you can learn at any age.
Your brain exists for lifelong learning, so make use of it!
Now I’d like to hear back from you.
Have I answered the question, “How can adults learn at any age?” to your satisfaction?
Let me know!
Pat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of HowtoLearn.com. She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page.
Her courses, Total Recall Learning™ for Students, Total Recall Learning for Professionals™, Total Recall Speed Reading™and Total Recall Memory™ have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.
She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.