We all have in our mind the concept that, as we get older, our brains get weaker. But do all functions of the brain weaken at the same time, and the same rate? Not if you believe the results of a study just out of Harvard and MIT Universities.
The findings of the study may give something to think about if you believe that everything starts going downhill in your 20s. While it’s true that most brain functions start slowing down by middle age, some parts of your brain actually keep improving until your early 70s.
The research, just being published in the journal Psychological Science, was possible because of the internet, and what is called the analysis of “Big Data”. Before internet research, studies on the brain were mostly done on college students looking to make extra money by agreeing to undergo brain testing in a college laboratory.
The other group extensively studied were older people, mostly retired individuals, who also agreed to brain testing. Now, using the internet, the Harvard and MIT researchers found that they could run large-scale brain experiments on any adult, of any age, willing to take an online test. Over the past few years, the researchers have accumulated the results from over 3 million people (“Big Data”) on sites such as gameswithwords.org and testmybrain.org.
The study measured several different “types” of intelligence: processing speed (how fast in general your brain processes information); short-term memory; the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states (by only looking at images of the eyes); and finally crystallized intelligence, which is the ability of the brain to access your accumulation of facts and knowledge. This is what they found:
The brain functions best at these ages
Processing speed: peaks around age 18 or 19 and immediately declines
Short-term memory: increases until about age 25, stays stable until about age 35, then begins to drop
Ability to evaluate other’s emotional states: peaks in the 40s and 50s
Crystallized intelligence: peaks in the late 60s or early 70s.
The other interesting fact that came out of this research is that the peak age for crystallized intelligence has changed quickly in the last decades. The researchers looked over previous data from adult IQ tests from the mid last century. This older data showed that crystallized intelligence peaked in a person’s late 40s, whereas the new data shows a much later peak—up until the early 70s.
The scientists believed this could be due to better education, more jobs requiring more reading, and a greater level of intellectual stimulation for older people. This supports the idea that we should all continue to read—and challenge our brains in other ways—as we get older.
According to Laura Germine, a coauthor of the study, “Some things are better, and some things are worse as we age. It’s a complex, dynamic system. It’s nice as you get older to know that maybe I am not as quick as the college students, but I am a little wiser.”
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