Learning as Older Adults and Actively Aging

senior black man with headphones holding a thumbs up in a library

We often think of learning as a young person’s pursuit. 

 

But the truth is, learning is a lifelong journey

 

No matter what stage of life you’re in, there are always new things to learn and explore.

 

And not just for the sake of expanding your knowledge, but also to grow and continue to strive to be your best self – which, by the way, is someone that both you and your loved ones truly enjoy being around. 

 

Aging doesn’t have to mean stagnation. Don’t let these aging myths harm your potential.

 

Instead, let your golden years be a time of great exploration, adventure, and growth.

 

To help you do just that, we’ll explore what research says about cognitive aging, what the best age to learn new things is, and how to tap into the best learning processes as an older adult.

 

What is Cognitive Aging?

Cognitive aging is a normal process that all adults experience as they age. It’s simply the natural decline in mental abilities that comes with getting older. This can include things like memory loss, difficulty focusing and paying attention, and poor judgment. 

 

While it can be a scary prospect for some people, it doesn’t have to be. Once you get to know the nuances of cognitive decline and normal aging, you can pinpoint specific issues to better manage the decline. 

 

For instance, there’s a difference between normal aging and dementia. And here’s a comparison of memory that declines vs. remains stable with age:

 

   memory and cognitive aging - the aspects that decline and remain stable with age

 

Sure, these overall changes can be frustrating, but it’s important to remember that they are normal and everyone experiences them differently. It’s not all doom and gloom, and there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself against cognitive decline.

 

Plus, you can continue learning and expanding your mind for the rest of your life – which we’ll cover.

 

But first, what is the best age to learn new things?

 

What is the Best Age to Learn New Things?

We examined the existing psychology research to see what science says is the best age to learn new things.

 

And research suggests that the best age to learn is from ages 4 to 12.

 

That certainly doesn’t mean that older adults can’t benefit from learning, though. As it turns out, old brains can learn new tricks

 

A study conducted by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto revealed that seniors can do just as well as younger adults on visual, short-term memory tests. Older adults just use different parts of their brains to compensate for cognitive aging. 

 

correlation coefficient between young and older adults
Differential regional interrelations between young and old participants.

 

Another study found that when older adults commit to learning multiple new skills at the same time, they increase their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of 30-year-olds.

 

In other words, with constant dedication to learning, you can keep your mental acuity. 

 

Unlock Your Creativity

Studies have shown that the human brain remains plastic throughout our lives — which means that your brain is always capable of learning and creating new neural pathways. And one of the best ways to keep your brain active, healthy, and engaged is by being creative. 

 

A common myth about aging is that creativity declines with age. A meta-analysis of almost 300,000 scores suggests that we’re experiencing a creativity crisis. The researchers found that creativity starts declining in young children and thereby severely stunts growth. 

 

Apart from originality, all other creativity scores have decreased over the years meaning creative thinking declines overall with age.
Apart from originality, all other scores have decreased over the years meaning creative thinking declines overall with age.

 

Put another way, children are being taught to stunt their creativity to fit into the confines of the school system. Which makes sense because, after all, what creativity can you really foster in an environment that’s geared towards standardized tests and sticking to the rules?

 

This makes it even more essential for older adult learners to develop their creativity. Research suggests that adults who possess creative thinking capabilities compensate for and adjust to the unavoidable age-related losses. 

 

Learning and creativity go hand-in-hand. As renowned creativity enthusiast, a leading entrepreneur, and author of Creative Calling, Chase Jarvis, puts it:

 

“Learning is the lifeblood of creative work. The more you know how to do it and the better you become at doing it, the deeper your understanding of your work and the richer and more interesting it will be. This means you must develop the meta-skill of learning itself.” 

 

Creativity is also a key ingredient for a joyful life; when you’re creative, you’re constantly expanding your horizons and discovering new aspects of yourself. It can be easy to get bogged down in doubts and fears as you age. But it’s crucial to keep your mind open and allow yourself to explore new possibilities. 

 

So don’t be afraid to let yourself loose and explore the world of creativity and learning as a duo.

 

How Older Adults Continue Learning

The older adults who continue learning and pursuing new projects are both impressive and inspiring.

 

Many older adults have spent their entire lives pursuing knowledge and learning new things, and they show no signs of stopping. Whether it’s taking classes at a local community college or continuing to work on personal projects, these older adults are a testament to the power of lifelong learning.

 

For instance, take a look at these 10 late bloomers or this 60-year-old who memorized a poem with over 60 thousand words.

 

Rewire My Retirement Students

Even a little closer to home, we have several lifelong learners in our Rewire My Retirement community, pursuing exciting new endeavours and continued learning:

 

Like Danny van Leeuwen, who, after 15 years since being diagnosed with MS, is thriving because of his lifelong effort to learn and grow. 

 

With a bustling list of meaningful weekly activities ranging from consulting on a variety of healthcare companies and boards to playing his saxophone, to say his retirement life is fulfiling is an understatement. 

 

Likely the activity with the highest initial learning curve, Danny learned how to publish an active blog and podcast, called Health Hats, which currently sits at 159 podcast episodes as of this writing.  

 

And take Sue Camaione, as another successful Rewire My Retirement student, who proactively set up her retirement life to have something purposeful to retire to. 

 

She learned how to hone her writing skills and follow through with her passion projects in a new way that’s leading to her success in publishing not one, but two, books. Sue also plans to launch a site that features more of her writing this year. 

  

 

You can pursue your own learning and active aging, too with a bit of clarity on your innate passions and what naturally lights you up. 

 

And if you’re just starting out and want to explore some ideas and opportunities, peruse these creative learning sites:

 

 

No matter the path you take, it’s inspiring to see so many older adults continuing to learn and grow. And it’s a reminder that no matter how old we get, there’s always something new to learn. They are a source of inspiration for all of us, and they remind us that it’s never too late to pursue our passions.

 

And as our eldest Rewire My Retirement successful student AnnaBelle Marshall imparts her wisdom:

 

When you stop learning, your world becomes smaller and smaller. And the larger your world, the more positive and pleasant you are to be around.” 

 

Use It or Lose It

Learning is not a linear process, it’s more of an ever-changing journey. And you’re literally designed to grow, develop, and change alongside it.

 

And because you can create new neural pathways until the day you die, your brain is built for lifelong learning. It’s the basic principle of neuroplasticity — “use it or lose it”. 

 

We urge you not to forget the importance of learning as you age – keep exploring, keep growing, and keep learning.

 

Tap into your experience and broaden your horizons with new things, places, and people.

 

You and those around you will be much better for it.