In the sporting world athletes reach their peak performance at different ages for different sports. For example, swimmers predominately reach their peak performance in their late teens /early twenties, tennis players mid twenties, footballers late twenties, golfers in their thirties and ultra marathon runners in their forties. But at what age do you reach your mental peak?
Well, like the sporting world it varies, depending on the mental task in hand.
According to researchers Hartshorne and Germine, in their 2015 paper ‘When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak?’ some cognitive functions peak when you are in your teens, others keep improving until your forties and some you reach the ‘summit’ when you’re in your 70’s!
“There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them.”
In exploring at what age we reach our mental peak, Hartshorne and Germine sampled tens of thousands of people online using popular websites such as www.testmybrain.org and www.gameswithwords.org. Their tests included looking at four unusual shapes and then judging from memory whether a fifth shape matched any of the previous four (a measure of visual working memory); learning symbol and digit pairings (known as “digit symbol coding”) or simply judging a person’s emotional expression purely from their eyes.
Analysing respondents’ performance by age, the researchers discovered that the following mental abilities had different age peaks;
- performance at digit symbol coding (seen as a basic measure of mental agility) peaked at 18;
- visual working memory peaked at 25;
- working memory for numbers peaked in the early to mid-30s.
- the ability to identify other people’s emotions peaks between the ages of 40 to 60 (the spread meaning there is a long plateau in peak ability);
- vocabulary ability peaks in the late 60s / early 70s;
“At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things.”
For those interested in the background research, the study revealed a good deal of consistency between this new data gathered online and comparison data collected 20 years ago with pencil and paper tests in the development of the Wechsler intelligence tests. This validates the use of the Internet to obtain massive samples of data on people’s cognitive abilities.
However, there was one notable exception, the new data suggests that vocab peaks about 15 years later than the Wechsler data.
To solve this anomaly, Hartshorne and Germine looked at vocab performance data collected repeatedly from the 1970s to 2012 from thousands of people in paper and pencil tests as part of a large social survey in the US. This showed that over time, people’s peak vocab performance is occurring later in life, which the researchers believe is because people are now exposed to more intellectual stimulation later in their lives.