Does the Ability to Learn Decrease With Age?

Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The evidence from various studies suggests that the ability to learn does indeed decrease with age, although the extent and nature of this decline can vary across different cognitive domains and types of learning. While some aspects of learning, particularly those that rely on familiar information or nondeclarative processes, may be relatively preserved, new learning and associative learning appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of aging. Understanding the specific cognitive components that contribute to age-related learning decline is crucial for developing strategies to mitigate these effects and support cognitive health in the aging population.


The process of aging is often accompanied by various cognitive changes, including alterations in learning abilities. This article delves into the question of whether the capacity to learn diminishes with age, drawing on a range of research studies that have explored cognitive functions in both human and animal models.

Age-Related Cognitive Decline in Mice

Research on Balb/C mice has shown that aging is associated with a decline in general cognitive performance, particularly in learning abilities. Aged mice performed worse than younger mice on a variety of learning tasks, suggesting that certain components of the working memory system may fail with age. This decline was also linked to an increase in body weight and a decrease in general activity1.

Memory Function Among Healthy Elderly

A longitudinal study on healthy elderly individuals revealed that memory decline is indeed associated with aging. However, this decline was specific to certain memory functions, particularly those involving the acquisition and early retrieval of new information. Other cognitive domains, such as language and abstract reasoning, did not show a similar age-related decline2.

Memory and Language in Aging

An overview of age-related changes in memory and language highlighted that while some abilities, such as memory for practiced skills and familiar information, are preserved, others, such as the recall of recent experiences and new facts, are impaired. This suggests a pattern of impaired new learning versus preserved old learning in normal old age3.

Skill Learning in the Elderly

A study focusing on skill learning found that while the elderly may experience declines in performance, the acquisition of nondeclarative tasks, which do not require conscious processing, is not significantly affected by age. This indicates that certain types of learning may be less susceptible to age-related decline4.

Speed and Memory Deficits

Investigations into the relationship between speed of cognitive processing and memory deficits have shown that while some aspects of memory, such as initial recall, are mediated by processing speed, learning with rehearsal is relatively unaffected by age. This suggests that cognitive decline during old age cannot be fully explained by a general slowing of mental processes5.

Cognitive Processing Speed and Functional Ability

The onset of functional ability decline in early old age has been linked to changes in cognitive processing speed. Additionally, personality changes, such as increased neuroticism and external control, may accompany this decline6.

Visual Working Memory Decline

A study on visual working memory revealed an age-related decrease in the precision with which visual information can be maintained, as well as an increase in misbinding errors. This suggests a decline in the resources available for storing visual information with age7.

Associative Learning and Aging

Research on associative learning has consistently shown an age-related decline in performance. This decline persists even after controlling for other cognitive processes involved in paired-associate learning, indicating that associative learning is independently affected by aging810.

Spatial Working Memory and Visuomotor Learning

Spatial working memory (SWM) has been implicated in visuomotor learning, and age-related declines in SWM may contribute to deficits in this type of learning. The engagement of cognitive processes during learning appears to be less effective in older adults, which may contribute to their reduced learning abilities9.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Laura Ward has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Glasgow in Psychology, Public Health

Yes and no, our brain’s neurons are regularly ‘edited’ with a focus of what’s important for that individual at that time. For example, when we are babies we have the ability to learn any language to communicate – including the various clicking noises made by indigenous tribes. After some time in each culture being exposed to a certain language(s) a certain amount of pruning occurs wherein we lose this ability if it’s not relevant to us. In older ages our brain changes in terms of the structure, the amount of grey/white matter changes as we age there is structural loss, similarly there is a reduced amount of blood flow in the brain. Ageing is often associated with cognitive decline and memory loss, however there are still many unknowns and older aged adults are often able to learn new spatial information e.g. moving house to a new layout. The science around healthy ageing is growing as we learn more about taking good care of our bodies and brains can help us age well.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Evandro Fei Fang has answered Likely

An expert from University of Oslo in Anti-Ageing, Alzheimer’s Disease

Yes. The ability to learn is largely dependent on the brain health which is deteriorated with ageing. Studies from laboratories animals provide evidence.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Gavin Brown has answered Likely

An expert from University of Auckland in Education, Psychometrics, Statistics

Maybe yes. Of course there are always individual exceptions to any general rule. With that in mind, fluid intelligence, which allows us to rapidly process and problem solve in novel and dynamic situations, tends to decline in humans from the mid to late 20s. On the other hand, crystalised abilities don’t normally tail off well until the 60s. That means while older adults may struggle with novelties in the environment (flashing video player clocks, anyone?), there greater store of structured coherent knowledge allows them to function effectively. They have abilities into which new knowledge can be structured—it’s why older and wiser people with knowledge of the past add value to decision making. They are able to learn well despite not having fluid abilities as they used to. Very good summary of this research in Deary, I. J. (2001). Intelligence: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: OUP.

Nonetheless, as the human body and brain age there will be an impact on mental functioning. Lord Robert Winston provided good advice on how to keep the mind active, alert, and learning in his book: Winston, R. (2003). The human mind and how to make the most of it. London: Bantam. So keep doing those puzzles to keep your brain alert, eat fish, keep physically active, and you’ll probably keep learning no matter how old you are.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Michael Thomas has answered Likely

An expert from Birkbeck, University of London in Psychology, Cognitive Science, Intelligence

Broadly, adults are better learners than children in the classroom. They pay attention better, they can follow instructions, respond to explicit feedback, and follow strategies. However, children seem more effective at consolidating knowledge between lessons, particularly for implicitly learned content. For the adult, each next lesson has to start by recapping what went before, while children seem to be continuously learning. Adults also may need more practice of a skill for it to become automatic, and the older you start learning, maybe the lower the ultimate level of proficiency you can achieve (e.g., in a motor skill). That is, I can learn to play tennis aged 40, and after a while, my backhand may be half decent, but I’m never going to win Wimbledon. In general, the brain has lifelong plasticity. However, there are a few areas where there are ‘sensitive periods’, that is, you need to start young to have high skill levels. These mainly apply to low level perceptual and motor skills (e.g., learning to hear and speak as a native in a given language), and not cognitive skills (you can always learn new ideas). In sum, it’s never too late to learn, but earlier is generally better.

Here’s a paper where we looked at the evidence on this:


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Chanawee Hirunpattarasilp has answered Likely

An expert from HRH Princess Chulabhorn College of Medical Science in Neuroscience

The ability to learn decreases with age. This can be easily seen in learning a second language. After the age of 7, learning a new language becomes more difficult. This may be related by the fact that the brain regions processing the second language are distinctly different from the those of the first language. In contrast, early bilinguals process both languages in the same area.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Alan S. Kaufman has answered Likely

An expert from Yale University in Intelligence, Education

A vast body of research shows clearly and crisply that the ability to deal with novelty and solve new problems peaks in the late teens and early 20s before beginning to descend rapidly in middle age, and continue to fall dramatically with increasing age, continuing to plunge when a person is in their 80s and 90s. This declining ability is often called fluid intelligence. 

By contrast, the ability to accumulate knowledge, whether in school or by other cultural experiences, increases with age until a person is in their 60s (when level of education is controlled), and doesn’t start declining until age 75. 

That means that whether learning decreases with age depends on the person’s FAMILIARITY with the material to be learned. 

If it is something NOVEL, then the ability to learn the new material, or the new skill, will decrease dramatically with increasing age. If it is FAMILIAR then there will be no decrease in learning ability with age, and there may well be an increase. 

Consider learning to play the violin at age 25 and age 65. Let us suppose that NEITHER person had ever been taught any musical instrument, either self-taught or via music lessons. In that instance, the average 25-year-old will learn the violin much more quickly than the average 65-year-old. 

Now let us suppose that BOTH individuals had learned an instrument, perhaps the piano or guitar, when they were younger. Then the rate of learning a familiar task would probably be about equal, on average. 

But what if the 65-year-old had been taught an instrument as a youth or young adult, whereas the 25-year-old never had any formal or informal musical training? In that case, the older, experienced person will learn much more quickly than the novice, on average. 

And this generalization about the relationship between learning ability and age extends well beyond learning a musical instrument. The same principle applies as well to chess, learning a new language, golf, taking a course in art history or opera, delivering an invited lecture, or almost any learning task one might think of. 


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Yousef Khalifa Aleghfeli has answered Uncertain

An expert from Oxford University in Education

Learning occurs differently with age, depending on the individual. While neural connections occur at a faster rate in earlier years, it is often misinterpreted as ‘learning occurs faster in earlier years’. The human ability to learn is an adaptive one; meaning, it can adapt to changing circumstances, both physiologically and environmentally. That is why we still find older-aged individuals who are successful at learning a language or a musical instrument. This understanding is the basis for adult education as a field of academic study and professional practice.


Does the ability to learn decrease with age?

Marvin Formosa has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Malta in Gerontology

Who has not heard of the old adage ‘old dogs cannot learn new tricks!’. Is this true? Does the ability to learn decrease with age? Some aspects of learning ability suffer with ageing. Other aspects of learning actually improve considerably. The crux here is separating the chaff from the wheat. However, this is far from a straightforward matter. The process of learning is embedded in various contexts ranging from the cognitive to the social to the relational to the spatial. Hence, it is far from easy to separate what contributes to improved or worsening learning abilities as we grow older since increasing birthdays may be the least contributing variable to such developments next to social crises, personal tribulations, health complications and environmental changes. A definite answer of the effect of age on people’s cognitive development is near to impossible to attain. Whilst intellectual ability varies extensively from one person to another, the variations from research study to study in content and methodology make absolute comparisons unworkable. Yet, it is clear that barring physiological and psychological impediments people can and do have the ability to continue learning well into extreme old age. Indeed, older persons actually possess a number of compensatory factors – such as the integrity of crystallised intelligence, the accumulation of knowledge and experience, the persistence of curiosity, and the ability to put new information in a highly meaningful context – which may even give older learners an edge over younger peers. After all, recent research has demonstrated clearly that even persons living with dementia do not lose the propensity for learning new skills and knowledge. Hence, the answers to this question are yes and no, maybe, it varies, it depends on what type of learning abilities are we looking at, are we referring to formal or informal learning. As with the whole oeuvre of social science issues, there can never be a completely and definitely affirmative or negative answer.

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