4 Cognitive Abilities That Actually Peak When You Are Older

Cognitive abilities peak at varying ages, say researchers from MIT and Harvard.

a young boy plays chess with an old man
Walter Wisby, aged eight, playing a game of chess with T Whiltard, aged 91, in Cheltenham. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Many of us do not look, feel or act our age. Sooner or later, of course, time tends to catch up. Some abilities that we’ve had in our younger versions are no longer the same. Yet there are other ways in which we are sharper and smarter than we used to be. What researchers found out is that different mental skills peak at different times of a person’s life. 

A 2015 study by MIT’s Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine from Harvard determined when exactly various kinds of cognitive performances were the strongest. Their research involved several experiments, with much data coming from two websites they set up that featured cognitive tests. These sites generated data from almost 3 million people in a few years.

One test the scientists ran involved 2,450 Americans from diverse backgrounds and locations, performing 15 tasks that ranged from math to vocabulary quizzes to picture completion.

What the results showed is that while the majority of mental power skills like memory, retelling stories and pattern recognition peaked from late teens into the 20s, a few notable ones got better with time and reached full potency by the 50s. These included vocabulary, math, general knowledge and comprehension (which was a test of how well participants could explain certain concepts). Such skills come from accumulated knowledge which benefits from a lifetime of experience. 

Vocabulary, in fact, peaked even later, in the late 60s to early 70s. So now you know why grandpa is so good at crosswords.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how cognitive functions change over time:

Credit: Joshua K. Hartshorne and Laura T. Germine, Psychological Science.

For another way of looking at how abilities and time are related, look at the green “family pictures” line in the chart below. The underlying experiment involved participants being shown family pictures, which they had to recall in detail:

Credit: Joshua K. Hartshorne and Laura T. Germine, Psychological Science.

And here’s a win for the 40+ folks - the below representation of a test of 10,000 visitors to TestMyBrain.org shows that older subjects did better than the young on the vocabulary test. The under-30 group did much better on memory-related tasks, however.

Credit: Joshua K. Hartshorne and Laura T. Germine, Psychological Science.

Is there one age when all of your mental powers are at their maximum? The researchers don’t think so.  

“At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things. There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them,” said Joshua Hartshorne.

A 2014 study by Canadian researchers from Simon Fraser University provided another look at the question. They analyzed data from 3,305 players of the game “Starcraft II” between the ages of 16 to 44. 

What they found is that younger players had significant advantages in certain tasks. For example, a 24-year-old would be 150 millisecond faster than a player of the same caliber who is 39. In general, the researchers found 24 to be a key age, after which player abilities slowly declined, losing about 15% of the speed every 15 years. 

Older players did perform better in some aspects, making up for the slower brain processing by using simpler strategies and being more efficient. They were, in other words, wiser.

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Chernobyl fungus could shield astronauts from cosmic radiation

A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.

C. sphaerospermum

Medmyco / Wikimedia Commons
Surprising Science
  • Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
  • C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
  • The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Keep reading Show less

Bruce Lee: How to live successfully in a world with no rules

Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."

Bruce Lee: How to live successfully in a world with no rules ...
  • Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
  • In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
  • One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
Keep reading Show less

3 reasons for information exhaustion – and what to do about it

How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."

Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
An endless flow of information is coming at us constantly: It might be an article a friend shared on Facebook with a sensational headline or wrong information about the spread of the coronavirus.
Keep reading Show less
Culture & Religion

Top 5 theories on the enigmatic monolith found in Utah desert

A strange object found in Utah desert has prompted worldwide speculation about its origins.

Scroll down to load more…