Too old to learn something new?

Q: Getting older makes me feel less sharp. Why don’t I catch on to things as quickly as I used to?

A: Faster. Better. Younger. Smarter. Not necessarily. By definition “latent learning” can occur at any age. This means you can learn or observe something subconsciously. Then, you can repeat that behavior at a later time.

While it is true that concept formation, abstract thinking and mental flexibility declines with age (especially after age 70), it does not mean you lack capacity to learn. Some research reveals the brain’s capacity for memory, reasoning and comprehension skills can start to deteriorate as early as age 45. Cognitive function is hampered by heart disease (obesity, high blood pressure or high cholesterol), any of which can occur before age 60. Therefore, the importance of a healthy lifestyle, particularly paying attention to cardiovascular health, can safeguard one’s cognition during aging.

Scientific evidence proves that there is a decline in information processing as a person ages, but familiarity and the complexity of those tasks need to be factored in. A person’s working memory (information stored temporarily, sometimes on a short-term basis) or semantic comprehension (recognizing known words) can result in a slower response from older adults. However, what is the speed of information coming at the older person? It may be an unfamiliar task or object, thus it takes longer to encode and embed new information in memory when performing tasks less practiced or recognized.

Sensory input and distractions

Impairments in cognitive function are often measured with sensory (visual and auditory) abilities; hence, it is important not only to keep in good cardiovascular health, but also to keep hearing and eyesight capabilities functioning well too. Additionally, older adults may perform poorly on cognitive tasks compared to younger counterparts because they are more susceptible to irrelevant stimuli and have greater difficulty squelching distractions. This can result in higher distractibility, sub-par retrieval of task-relevant details, and overall worsened task accomplishment.

Alertness and control

The three networks relied upon for functional cognitive performance are alerting, orienting and executive control. Is a person capable of maintaining an alert state, can they filter the sensory input and resolve the conflicting information to determine the appropriate response(s)? When top-down or goal-directed control of attention is driven by an individual’s internal values, goals, or self-perception, studies have shown these tasks by older adults are performed as fast and as accurately as younger adults. Conversely, if there are multiple distractions or lack of direct attention (bottom-up), there is less chance that these tasks will be performed as well as a younger person.

Experience and expectations

Stress, depression and anxiety affect successful performance of learning in all age groups. So, it doesn’t mean that an older person is unable to be taught something new; the environment must be conducive to new learning. What is the individual’s capacity and what are the cues needed to accomplish the task or skill? What is the perceived load of information

required to achieve success? Is this object, experience or activity something the older adult has been exposed to previously? Unfamiliar or newer tasks require more visual capacity (how most people can reach a targeted goal), therefore, is it a realistic expectation to reach that goal?

Research has demonstrated that if a person was exposed to that object or activity, even if many years prior, there is an increased likelihood that new learning can occur based upon previous exposure to it. This is called incidental exposure or latent learning. The subconscious retention of information without intentionally being motivated to “learn,” but obtaining that knowledge through observation. This is how an older adult can consciously learn something new rather quickly—that prior impression sticks in the mind, which leads to readiness to learn about those activities later in life.

In summary, aging adults are capable of learning when there are fewer distractions, the information is delivered concisely, in an intelligible speed, with some comprehension of the subject or object, and usage of familiar descriptors. With the majority of those factors in place, successful accomplishment can occur through explicit teaching at any age.

Trying a new experience or exposure to a different environment can actually help you embrace moments to their fullest and make the time pass more slowly. Give it a whirl. “Every sunset is an opportunity to reset. Every sunrise begins with new eyes” (Richie Norton).

Karen Casanovas, PCC, CPCC, CLIPP is a health, wellness and simplified living coach practicing in Anchorage. If you have questions, write to her at