From age 18 to 70, our cognitive skills are peaking in different ways. Discover which age wins at short term memory, recognizing faces, evaluating emotions, and more. (Photo: Getty Images)
If you’re curious about when brainpower peaks over the course of a lifetime, the answer is simple: it’s complicated. A new study published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science shows that different facets of fluid intelligence — the ability to think critically, analyze data and use problem-solving skills — peak at different ages, some well into our 40s.
According to study author Joshua Hartshorne, a postdoc in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, common wisdom generally gets this idea wrong. “Many assume there is a cognitive peak — that you’re the best at everything at a specific age,”he tells Yahoo Health. “But we’ve known for some time that that can’t be quite right.”
To test fluid intelligence, Hartshorne and co-researcher Laura Germine used Internet data from 50,000 subjects of all ages visiting two websites: gameswithwords.org and testmybrain.org. These sites tested the users’ skills across four cognitive tasks and one emotional-intelligence task.
They found distinct patterns providing ample evidence that age matters when it comes to different kinds of intelligence. For instance, the speed at which a person processes information peaks early, at around 18 or 19, and then immediately begins to fall. On the other hand, crystallized intelligence, or the total accumulation of knowledge, doesn’t peak until the late 60s or early 70s.
There’s are likely genetic and experiential reasons for the varied age peaks, in addition to reasons for our misperception of what time each of these skills peak. “There’s an awful lot that depends on experiences,”says Hartshorne. “Adults know more words than children, for instance, simply because they’ve heard more words. And with processing, while 30-year-olds may not be as quick as 18-year-olds, it’s great to be fast, but it’s better to know where you’re going.”
There are tons of implications to these results, according to Hartshorne — everything from developing learning strategies to creating a baseline for cognition skills, the latter of which may be notably important.
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For instance, if you tested emotion recognition among college students and the 65-year-old set, you’d get similar results — and probably think there was no age-related change, even though this skill actually peaks near 40. “If we don’t know what normal is, it’s hard to know what abnormal is,”Hartshorne says.
Check out some of the findings for cognition age “norms”below.
• Age 18-19: Information-processing speed peaks
• Age 25: Short-term memory peaks, and then levels off for a time
• Age 30: Memory for faces peaks
• Age 35: Short-term memory begins to decline
• Age 40-50: Ability to evaluate emotions peaks
• Age 60: Still learning new vocabulary skills
• Age 60 - 70+: Crystallized intelligence peaks
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