Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? Neuroplasticity and Improving Your Memory in Older Adulthood

09 Apr 2015

CHeBA Blog: Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? Neuroplasticity and Improving Your Memory in Older Adulthood


It is common thinking that as we age our memory function deteriorates.  But over the past 20 years, research indicates that even the older brain has a degree of plasticity.  This means that the brain has the ability to make new connections between its neurons (or brain cells) in response to various types of stimulation or learning experiences, which in turn can help improve memory and other cognitive skills.  It has also been shown that older adults who regularly engage in complex mental activities have a lower risk of dementia.  The more, the better!

Based on current scientific knowledge, we know that various strategies can be implemented to help improve memory and potentially slow down age-related cognitive decline, including:  

1. Learn Something New

New is the key!  Novelty is an important factor to achieving durable changes to your brain’s structure and function.  We know from the London Taxi Drivers study that after undergoing intense training on how to navigate the streets around London, MRI scans showed the cab drivers had a larger hippocampus; the part of the brain that controls memory.  Even a group of seniors who began to practice juggling experienced an increase in brain areas that process complex visual information.  The point is that we need to extend ourselves beyond our existing skills.  It is commendable if you regularly do crosswords but challenge yourself to try something new like sudoku, learning a musical instrument, a language, take up bridge or even juggling!  There is a large range of adult education courses available, and being in a social environment is an added bonus.  Another important aspect is that the activity needs to be sustained.  So stick with it!  Learning a new skill takes time.  But importantly by engaging in new experiences and learning new skills you are helping to keep your brain flexible and healthy.

2. Paying Attention

Children and young people are hard-wired to learn, meaning that minimal effort is required to learn and make enduring changes to their brains.  Of course older adults can learn and remember new things too but this requires relatively more effort.  We often do things without thinking.  This is why we forget where we put things such as our keys.  Principles from the study of neuropsychology can help improve our day-to-day memory.  Paying attention is an essential first step to remembering information.  The key is to ensure that you have created a memory trace.  The first step is to focus on what you are doing at the time.  If you are trying to remember where you put the keys, focus on entering the house with the intention of placing your keys.  Don’t ‘multi-task’ because human attention capacity is a finite resource, so your capacity for remembering where you put the keys will be diminished if you are thinking about what to cook for dinner.  We know that using multiple modalities incorporating visual and verbal cues is the most effective strategy for learning and remembering.  For example, talk yourself through the steps or route to where you will put the keys and make a mental picture of the location (e.g. in the kitchen by the phone).  Rehearsal of new information maximises the chances it will become an enduring trace that you can call back to mind more easily.  These general principles can be applied to many scenarios to help you remember important information and learn new skills.

This article was first published in Montefiore LIFE March 2015.