Middle-aged brains still as sharp as young ones, study finds

Sure, our skin may not be as springy as it once was, and our hair (what’s left of it) may be lacking the verve and colour it once had, but don’t let the young whippersnappers in your life tell you that us ‘over-50′ folk are not as sharp as they are ‘upstairs’.

They’re wrong, and we’ve got the science to prove it.

A study conducted by researchers at Germany’s Heidelberg University (HU) involving more than a million participants appears to have overturned the widely held belief that mental processing power peaks around the age of 20.

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The study found that mental agility appears to remain stable at least until people reach their 60s, if not later. The leaders of the study, Dr Mischa von Krause and Dr Stefan Radev, evaluated data from a large-scale online experiment with more than a million participants, and found that the speed of cognitive information processing remains largely stable between the ages of 20 and 60, and deteriorates only at higher ages.

Dr von Krause, a researcher in the quantitative research methods department at HU’s institute of psychology, said: “The common assumption is that the older we get, the more slowly we react to external stimuli. If that were so, mental speed would be fastest at the age of about 20 and would then decline with increasing age.”

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To test the veracity of this theory, they re-evaluated data from a large-scale American study originally designed to measure levels of unconscious racial bias. Subjects were required to press a button to sort pictures of people into the categories ‘white’ or ‘black’ and words into the categories ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Dr von Krause said the content focus was of minor importance in the study. Instead, the researchers used the large batch of data as an example of a response-time task to measure the duration of cognitive decisions.

The study noted that on average, the response times of the test subjects rose with increasing age, concurring with anecdotal expectations, but mathematical modelling demonstrated that it was not mental speed that was driving these factors but rather, “non-decisional processes” and a healthy dose of caution.

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“Non-decisional processes” include the fact information takes just a little longer to make its journey from the eyes to the brain and that motor skills become a little blunter, which means it takes longer for a person to hit the button. These can be age-related, but are not an indication of cognitive decline or otherwise.

The main factor in slower response times was an increase in ‘decision caution’ with age. The slowing of response times does begin as early as age 20, but the research concludes that slowing was “attributable to increases in decision caution and to slower non-decisional processes, rather than to differences in mental speed”.

So next time you head out to the garage with your young whippersnapper to show them how to use a whipper snipper, don’t let them tell you you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed. They’re probably wrong – and you’ve got the science to prove it!

Do you feel as sharp as you did when you were younger? Do you have some tips for keeping your brain healthy? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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