Scientists have discovered that humans’ cognitive performance increases sharply up to age 20 and reaches its peak at when you’re 35.
I remember playing Brain Training on my Nintendo DS when I was a kid and feeling dismayed if my brain age was anything more than 19, but Dr. Kawashima probably would have been more impressed if I’d ranked as someone in my mid-30s.
That’s certainly what scientists from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich believe, as they studied thousands of chess games to determine whether our brains improved with age.
The team looked at more than 24,000 professional chess games that took place between 1890 and 2014, and analysed the more than 1.6 million moves that took place throughout. To determine the quality of the performance, the researchers compared each move made to the optimal move recommended by a computer-based chess engine.
The authors explained their method in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), writing:
This provides a precise and comparable measurement of individual performance for the same individual at different ages over long periods of time, exploiting the advantage of a strictly comparable task and a comparison with an identical performance benchmark…
Over the past 125 years, performance has improved, especially for individuals less than 20 years of age.
Findings were described as a ‘hump-shaped’ curve, which indicated that performance rose sharply until the early 20s, the experienced plateau before peaking at approximately 35 years. Performance starts to decline slightly at 45 years old.
The authors explained:
The emerging life cycle performance pattern corresponds to several findings in the previous literature that have estimated the age profile on the basis of variation between individuals or using work-related measures.
The study also revealed that humans as a collective species have become smarter over the years, with performance rising most steeply during the 1990s, when chess engines on home computers became more widely available.
The findings offer some insight into how the age pattern for an individual performance in cognitively demanding tasks has changed over the past century; information that is difficult to measure because of the difficulty of constructing a reliable measure.
The measure has to be comparable across both individuals and time, and not affected by changes in technology or other environmental factors.
While the findings might be disheartening for those who have already surpassed peak cognitive age, it’s good news for those under the age of 35 – your intelligence is on the rise.