cognitive development

No, You Haven’t Reached Your Cognitive Peak

Cognitively speaking, it’s all downhill after a certain birthday, right? That’s the conventional thinking, at least.

And it’s wrong – in part because the thinking fails to differentiate between different types of cognitive skill.

According to new research, our cognitive skills – such as our ability to remember names and faces, recall long-ago and recent events, and learn new words – peak at different times in our lives, and we definitely do become better at some skills with age. Even after age 60.

“I think a lot of people have this intuitive feeling that at a certain age you are at your mental peak,” Joshua Hartshorne, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Senior Planet. His research, which was just published in the journal Psychological Science, has found that is not so. Some skills max out very early, while and others are still building after age 60.

The Study

Hartshorne and his colleague, Laura Germine, PhD, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, gathered information from about 50,000 subjects, from kids to seniors, who had taken cognitive tests online at the researchers’ websites gameswithword.org and testmybrain.org. To be sure that the data gathered by Internet did not produce skewed results, they also looked at decades-old data on adult performance at different ages gathered via established intelligence and memory tests that measure about 30 different skills, such as the ability to memorize numbers or put together puzzles.

Some Cognitive Skills Improve With Age

Here’s what they found: At any given age, yes, you are getting worse at some skills. But you are staying the same on others and are actually improving on some skills. Plus, you have more knowledge to apply.

The researchers’ major findings:

  • Vocabulary peaks in your 60s and 70s – much later than scientists previously thought. No surprise, Hartshorne says; the peak age for vocabulary has been creeping up over the past 20 years. This says something about how we tend to spend our days, he adds. We’re doing more reading to meet job demands and are building vocabulary and knowledge in the process.
  • The ability to perceive another person’s emotional state also peaks later, in our 40s and 50s. By then, you know if a friend you’ve kept waiting at the restaurant, for instance, is bored or angry with you. While you might have reached your peak in this skill, the ability to read moods declines very slowly over the years, so you might still do better than, say, a 20 year-old.
  • Speed in processing information tends to peak at about age 19.
  • Short-term memory improves until about age 25, levels off, then drops at about age 35.

By gathering information via the Internet, Hartshorne says, the researchers were able to round out the age categories and learn more about older-age peaks. That’s because traditionally, research into cognitive skills – like some other research – tends to be top heavy with young children, college students and those who have finished their full-time working years. But when research is conducted via the Internet, the people responding are likely to represent a much wider age range, especially as increasing numbers of seniors lean computer skills.

“It paints a different picture of the way we change over the lifespan than psychology and neuroscience have traditionally painted,” Germine says.

Of course, we can help keep our cognitive skills in shape – even skills like short-term memorization that tend to peak in the 20s – by learning new things, taking on intellectual challenges and staying socially engaged. Read more about that on Senior Planet.

Which cognitive skills do feel more confident in now than you did when you were younger?

3 comments
  • Oz
    REPLY

    In my late sixties and still doing high-end high-techy techy stuff (ruby on rails), I know in some depth and detail that my short-term memory is not even close to what it was. I adapt by using notes extensively — written support. My ability to have perspective, to balance and to judge are strongly improved – and that contributes a lot to job success. As well as creative ability to find new solutions and new approaches. I do not feel at all that my ability to read others’s emotional states has decreased — on the contrary. (However, that may only be in relation to most of the people around me, who are frequently utterly unable to understand and to empathize with others.)

    • KathleenDoheny
      REPLY

      I think written support is a great idea. I just finished my to-do list for tomorrow, a nightly ritual…I wish I would have asked the researcher about how to improve on the skills that are declining..future story, maybe?

      • oz
        REPLY

        Yes, there are certainly many adaptation stories. It would be useful to collect them. It would reveal the creativity that comes into play when short-term processing and memory are declining.
        If it’s not in my on-line calendar, the appointment might just as well not exist.

        Oz

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