Science Says Old Dogs Can (And Should) Learn New Tricks

Getting in shape: New York author Jane Ogle; 62; stays in shape with regular exercise and a balanced diet. But even if you're not fit; the former editor of Vogue magazine says; you can get back into shape. you can reverse the aging process; she says.

Just like staying fit or making a living, learning is a never-ending process. So why do we find it so intimidating to try something new? According to new research from the University of California Riverside, learning or trying something new isn’t all that hard to do for adults — and can actually combat the negative effects of cognitive aging.

A separate study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed that people who took part in leisure activities, no matter if it was cooking or trail running, became 34 percent less stressed and 18 percent less sad while they did so, and the calming effect lasted for hours. In a time when all of us are too stressed, the benefits of learning new skills and taking up new hobbies as an adult are reason enough to get over your apprehension. And thanks to the study published from the University of California Riverside, titled “A Novel Theoretical Life Course Framework for Triggering Cognitive Development across the Lifespan,” we know that contrary to the familiar adage, an old dog can indeed learn new tricks

So whether it’s finally taking up cycling and swimming so you can finish a triathlon like you’d always wanted, or you're learning a new language so you can chat with locals during your dream vacation, learning isn’t as difficult as we perceive it to be.

According to study author Dr. Rachel Wu, learning is just as easy as it was when you were a baby. But as we learn more just by living and growing up (causing active learning to slow… or stop), we forget how to do it and in turn actually get bad at learning new things. The solution? Learning to learn again. Dr. Wu and her colleagues outlined six factors necessary for adults to jump back in the learning game and add to their skill-set, regardless of age.

“When you look across the lifespan from infancy, it seems likely that the decline of broad learning has a causal role in cognitive aging. But if adults were to engage in broad learning via the six factors that we provide (similar to those from early childhood experiences), aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits,” Wu says in a statement.

Ready to work on re-learning? Here are Wu’s six key steps:

1. Explore new patterns and skills outside of your comfort zone.

2. Make sure you have consistent access to teachers and mentors who can guide your learning.

3. Be willing to put in the work and believe that abilities are developed with effort.

4. Don’t sweat it when it gets tough — give yourself a forgiving environment where you’re allowed to make mistakes and even fail.

5. Be serious about your commitment to learning — that means learning to master essential skills and persevere despite setbacks.

6. Learn multiple skills simultaneously to keep learning continuous and constant.