I wrote a post last week about, what to do with your peak 5 years? In it I wondered if we need to identify when the average person peaks in various endeavors; from sports, musical playing ability, to numerous mental specialties.
If you asked me in my early 20s when does peak in mental abilities occurs I would have said mid to late 20s. Maybe I tied the physical with the mental a little too much (not to mention over the last 20 years we see many athletes peaking in their mid to late 30s). The question is when do we reach our peak mentally?
Hedden and Gabrieli 2004, in a very nice Nature Reviews Neuroscience article, provide an informative graph of a longitudinal study on mental ability as we age (which in this case provide more interesting data than a cross-sectional study).
You can see that perceptual speed has the quickest drop off as we age. An example of perceptual speed would be you are given a large square of numbers (20 X 40) and you are asked to circle all the 6s as fast as you can. You have to scan the numbers quickly, identify all the 6s, and circle them. And yes from 25 onwards it is all downhill. This might have been the raw processing ability I was thinking about when I was in my early 20s, that quickness - mental and physical.
Numeric ability starts dropping around the age of 39. Though mathematics is far beyond ‘numeric ability’ this general math decline goes along with the long held notion in the mathematical world that very few math breakthroughs occur in people beyond their 30s (e.g. mathematics is a young man’s game - see “A Mathematician’s Apology” - highly recommended for anyone thinking of going into math - or just curious - a classic).
But all the other mental tasks plotted in the graph; inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, verbal ability, and verbal memory, continue to increase for people in their 30s and 40s - and peaking in the 50 to 60 year old range.
Now of course these listed mental abilities are not all inclusive, but you get the general idea, which is for many mental abilities the peak might be far later than you normally thought.
Take home message:
If you are in your 20s or 30’s you can look forward to continued improvement in many, but not all, of your mental abilities. For those in your 40s or 50s you still can look forward to your ‘peak’ but you better prepare to take advantage of this apex. As for those in your 60s or later, you need to remember the data from the above graph is the ‘average’ there are still going to be many that peak at a later point in their life. The trick is to make sure you look after yourself (eat right and exercise would be a good start) so you can maintain, or even continue to improve, your mental ability as you age.
And why does knowing when the average peak mental ability occur matter - see - What to do with your peak 5 years?