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Your Mental Peak May Still Be Ahead of You

Volume of information has been affecting how scientists measure cognitive decline.

As the volume of possessed information has been improperly correlated with cognitive decline, linguistic experts argue that brains don’t necessarily slow with age, but rather, benefit from experiences. Tests that once showed decline in intellect have actually been showing people merely having more material to process, says Michael Ramscar, lead author of the 2014 study Topics in Cognitive Science from the German University of Tübingen.

“Imagine someone who knows two people’s birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly. Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2,000 people, but can ‘only’ match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?”

Einstein once said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” But was he right? The proportion of physicists who completed their prize-winning work before turning 30 had peaked in 1923, at 31 percent. But in 2000, that number had dropped to 19 percent for those younger than 40.

Intelligence—taking into accounts reasoning, planning, abstract thought, problem-solving, self-awareness, communication, creativity and learning—is either considered crystallized or fluid. Crystallized intelligence is built up from knowledge previously learned, whereas fluid intelligence is the capacity to think logically and solve problems independently of acquired knowledge. A 35-year test shows that our fluid intelligence peaks in young adulthood, in our late 30s and early 40s. But our crystallized mentality proves much more stable, not declining until our 70s, says Vanessa Hill. This begs the question: Is there a point where our fluid and crystallized peaks meet?

While it is difficult to measure how experience and sharp intellect influence a “peak,” Ramscar says that, other than Alzheimer’s, we know that the brain changes, but not necessarily experiencing cognitive decline. Scientists have only assumed that neurological changes are related to cognitive decline because they happen simultaneously, but this notion will be reassessed after further studying.

A 2012 Prosmer survey reveals that, on average, women experience a mental peak by age 39 and men by 42, and a creative peak in women by age 35 and in men by 37. Approximately 69 percent of women are worried about having a diminished mental capacity in old age, compared to 58 percent of men who worry.

Ramscar, however, argues that the fear and assumption that old age causes a decline in mental stability could pose a societal issue. “Population aging is seen as a problem because of the fear that older adults will be a burden on society; what is more likely is that the myth of cognitive decline is leading to an absurd waste of human potential and human capital. It thus seems likely that an informed understanding of the cognitive costs and benefits of aging will benefit all society, not just its older members.”

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BrainCraft explains more on mental peaks here:

Image by Dierk Schaefer, licensed under Creative Commons.