Too Old to be Told?

Mature man working from contemporary home

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but our ability to learn is much more complex than that, and the yearning for new information and new education in adulthood is one we should embrace… and the research proves it!

Recent research has shown that as we make our way through life, our learning capabilities transform in intriguing ways. In short, what has emerged is a new understanding that the complexities of the brain’s learning processes, from childhood to adulthood, are now challenging the belief that ageing equates to a decline in learning ability. Here’s how…

Necessity of learning in adulthood

Adults often find themselves in situations requiring new learning, such as pursuing Higher Education through platforms like the Open University, and beyond that, new skills and qualifications required for work.

In the UK, a study found that while full-time education saw an enhanced 9.6% pass rate in younger students achieving 1st- or 2nd-class degree status compared to those of a mature age, in part-time study 65% of the latter qualified, as opposed to 45% of those aged 25 and below.

Advantages adults have over young people in learning

senior-man-doing-online-classes-laptopContrary to popular belief, adults may possess certain advantages over young adults in learning. A study conducted in 2016 suggests that adults excel in focused and deliberate learning, leveraging their broader experiences and existing knowledge.

Overall, older adults who learned new skills showed an increase in cognitive function – their scores for such tasks were at least two to three times higher, one year after learning new skills.

A plateau, followed by gradual decline

Studies suggest the human brain may retain less information, the older the person is. For many adults, a plateau in cognitive abilities – including learning and thinking – is observed after reaching the 30s or 40s.

This seems to then be followed by a gradual slide, particularly noticeable in tasks measuring processing speed and other mental capabilities, a decline that tends to accelerate further once an individual passes the age of 60. It’s felt that in order to stave off this regression, new skills should be learned by individuals.

Learning ability and age: you’re not as far behind as you think

While it’s true that overall learning ability undoubtedly declines past early mid-age – a phenomenon evidenced by neurological studies showing changes in brain structure and blood flow – the propensity to learn actually begins to change much earlier.

For instance, very young children can learn multiple languages simultaneously, yet this is a capability that diminishes quickly with age. According to research, the brain’s plasticity, which facilitates language learning, is highest until the age of just six, and gradually decreases thereafter.

In other words, you’re not much less capable of learning a new language at 40 as you are at 20.

Enhancing learning in later life

Wide angle shot of woman sitting on table with coffee mug and laptop. Woman taking break while working from home.Overall, research suggests the adage ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not entirely accurate when it comes to human learning. While ageing does bring cognitive changes, continuous mental engagement and learning can mitigate these effects.

Essentially, as we age, a process of neural ‘pruning’ occurs, focusing our abilities on the most relevant skills. So despite structural changes in the brain, such as reduced grey matter and blood flow, the capacity to learn new spatial information, like adapting to a new house layout, and the adaption of technical, real-life skills, or new projects, are prevalent and prominent.

In short, adults bring unique strengths to the learning process, and with the right strategies and a focus on brain health, effective learning can continue throughout life.