The age when our brains start slowing down

Is it all downhill from age 24?

New research on age-related cognitive deterioration published in the journal PLOS One suggests that, when it comes to brain power, people go over the hill at age 24.

For the social experiment, researchers at Canada's Simon Fraser University analyzed the performance records of 3,305 players of a strategy video game. The participants, who ranged in age from 16 to 44, were placed in real-time situations that approximate real-life events. The tasks were meant to gauge a person's cognitive skills, including their ability to think critically, manage multiple tasks, and shift focus from immediate to long-term issues.

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The researchers used statistical modeling to analyze thousands of hours' worth of data on how players reacted to opponents. The analysis revealed that cognitive skills begin to dip, albeit slightly, at age 24. For every year that followed, cognitive speed dropped by about 1%. The cognitive performance decline—measured in actions per second—was consistent even for players with higher levels of skill.

However, the study did have a silver lining, says lead author Joe Thompson. "Older players, though slower, seem to compensate by employing simpler strategies and using the game's interface more efficiently than younger players, enabling them to retain their skill, despite cognitive motor-speed loss," he says.

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For instance, older players more readily leveraged short cuts and complex command keys to compensate for their lag in decision-making. The findings suggest that "cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood, but are constantly in flux, and that our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation," Thompson says (Park, TIME, 4/15; Ingraham, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 4/16; SFU release, 4/14).


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