Experimental Psychology Language and Development Seminar: The impact of learning multiple new real-world skills on cognitive abilities and functional independence in older adulthood

The natural learning experience from infancy to emerging adulthood, when considerable cognitive and functional growth is observed, mandates learning multiple real-world skills simultaneously. The present studies investigated whether learning multiple real-world skills simultaneously is possible in older adults, and also whether it improves both their cognitive abilities (working memory and cognitive control) and functional independence. Over two studies (15 and 27 participants), older adults learned at least three new skills (e.g., Spanish, drawing, music composition) simultaneously for three months. Participants completed cognitive and functional assessments before, during, and after the intervention in both studies. Participants were recruited sequentially for an intervention or no-contact control group in Study 1, and Study 2 included only an intervention group, who also completed assessments 6 weeks prior to the start of the intervention (i.e., they served as their own control group). Results from both studies show that simultaneously learning multiple skills is feasible and potentially beneficial for healthy older adults. Learning multiple skills simultaneously increased working memory, episodic memory, and cognitive control in older adults, with midpoint and post-intervention levels approaching levels similar to baseline performance in middle-aged adults, 30 years younger. Our findings demonstrate the feasibility and potential of conducting a real-world skill learning intervention involving learning three novel skills with older adults. Our intervention involving multiple skills may provide broad cognitive gains, akin to the benefits experienced earlier in the lifespan. Besides the practical application of this research, our findings also suggest that learning is a driver of cognitive development throughout the lifespan, rather than just earlier in the lifespan.