How easy is it to master a new skill in your 60s and beyond?

Think you’re too old to learn something new? Think again! Recent research shows that older adults learn just as well as youngsters. Also, challenging your brain with new skills can keep your mind sharp well into your golden years.

A fascinating study involving adults aged 58 to 86 who embarked on learning new subjects for three months found that the brain’s capacity for learning and growth doesn’t come with an expiry date. Impressively, after just six weeks, their mental faculties matched those of individuals 30 years their junior.

It may be true that children often find it easier to master certain skills, especially those involving fine-tuned perception. For instance, a linguist might struggle to perfectly emulate a native accent, and a new musician might not develop the refined sense of absolute pitch that someone who has been singing since they were a child may have.

However, as Aleksandar Hemon demonstrates, one can still become an award-winning novelist without sounding like a native speaker and many successful musicians thrive without perfect pitch. Significant progress is achievable in numerous fields, and adults often compensate for these challenges with their enhanced capacity for analysis, self-reflection and discipline.

The secret lies in the brain’s ability to rewire itself – a process known as neuroplasticity. With each new skill acquired or subject learnt, the brain forges new neural pathways, enhancing its ability to learn even more. It’s a virtuous cycle that can keep the mind sharp and agile.

Why learning later in life can be easier

Certain cognitive functions may slow down with age, but the mature brain compensates with a wealth of advantages that can make learning after 60 not just beneficial but also more profound.

Verbal abilities: a lifetime of conversing, reading and writing equips older adults with an expansive vocabulary and nuanced communication skills.

Inductive reasoning: with age comes wisdom, including the patience to avoid snap judgements and the ability to make decisions based on a rich tapestry of life experiences.

Visual-spatial skills: the ability to understand spatial relationships and visualise the movement of objects can improve with age, aiding in tasks ranging from driving to playing chess.

Basic math: practical experience with everyday maths over the years can lead to a more solid grasp of numbers and calculations.

Emotional regulation: the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, becomes less reactive to negativity, allowing older adults to focus on the positive and maintain a balanced perspective.

Contentment: many older adults report higher levels of life satisfaction, using their accumulated knowledge to adapt to, and accept, various life situations.

Overcoming obstacles to learning after 60

Despite the clear benefits, there are some hurdles that can hinder the learning process. However, they can be overcome with the right mindset and strategies.

Challenge your assumptions: embrace new experiences and perspectives. Travel to unfamiliar places, engage in debates or learn a new language. Each new endeavour can reinvigorate the mind.

Stay physically active: keeping in shape seems to be particularly important for maintaining neuroplasticity, as exercise helps to release a flood of neurotransmitters and hormones that are known to promote the growth of new brain cells and synapses. Combine physical activity with a heart-healthy diet for even greater benefits.

Cultivate a growth mindset: believe in your ability to learn and grow. Adopting a positive outlook on your learning potential can lead to more successful outcomes.

Connect with others: joining a class or study group not only provides social interaction but also stimulates the brain through discussion and collaboration.

Leverage technology: use apps and online resources tailored to adult learning. Technology can provide flexible and accessible ways to learn new skills.

Practice mindfulness: engage in activities that promote focus and concentration, such as meditation or tai chi, which can enhance cognitive abilities and reduce stress.

Learning after 60 is not just a hopeful notion; it’s a scientifically supported path to maintaining and improving brain health. So, whether it’s picking up a musical instrument, diving into a new hobby, or enrolling in a university course, the message is clear: it’s never too late to learn, and the benefits are boundless.

What new things have you learnt in your 60s? What tips do you have for anyone wanting to learn a new skill? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also read: How to keep your brain sharp in your 50s and beyond

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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