Older and Wiser?

How do senior brains measure up?

Senior woman holds a drawing of a brain

Brain research has grown by leaps and bounds during the past few decades, with sophisticated imaging techniques giving neurologists many new insights about the workings of the human mind. Yet brain images alone can't reveal a person's ability to think and remember. When it comes to mental abilities, the proof is in the performance. To learn how mental abilities change as we age, researchers traditionally recruited people of different ages to take part in cognitive and memory experiments in the research lab environment, then compared the results.

But now a research team is taking advantage of the Internet to collect a much larger set of results than was possible through traditional methods. According to the Association for Psychological Science, postdoctoral students Joshua Hartshorne of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Laura Germine of Massachusetts General Hospital are using an ingenious way to gather data on a large number of test subjects.

Hartshorne and Germine created experiments on the websites Games With Words and Test My Brain, which let users serve as test subjects while playing a variety of fun and challenging online brain games. The games proved to be popular, and the ability to post scores on Facebook and Twitter helped get the word out to the 3 million people who have taken part. Before playing, users are asked for relevant data, including their age. The information is confidential.

Using data from 50,000 of these volunteer test subjects, the MIT team sought to refine the understanding about how various cognitive abilities change as we age. Overall "fluid intelligence," which the researchers define as "the ability to analyze information, engage in critical thinking and solve problems," was formerly thought to peak in young adulthood, and then to decline rapidly. But their large, new study yielded some surprising, new refinements. Said Germine, "It paints a different picture of the way we change over the lifespan than psychology and neuroscience have traditionally painted."

Hartshorne summed up the new findings: "At any 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. There's probably not one age at which you're at peak on most things, much less all of them."

The researchers describe a progression of cognitive abilities: Around the age of 18 or 19, we are fastest at processing information, but that speed quickly declines. Our short-term memory is at its best around the age of 25, and begins to drop around age 35. Then things get interesting! Our ability to read the emotions of others peaks when we're in our 40s or 50s. And what neurologists call "crystallized intelligence"—the accumulation of facts and knowledge—peaks as late as our 70s.

Unfortunately, a certain percentage of older adults will be touched by Alzheimer's disease or a similar condition that robs them of memory and thinking ability. And as we saw in "Preparing for a Nation of Older Brains" in the July 2015 issue of Caring Right at Home, even certain normal changes in the way we think and remember as we grow older can be challenging.

But for the most part, the MIT findings mesh with our ideas of the traditional roles of humans across the age spectrum. We've always looked to our elders for perspective. Many seniors retain their creativity and innovative spirit well into later life, but they also are tempered with experience, with lessons learned, and with a greater insight into human nature—qualities that make up what we commonly call wisdom.

Read more about the MIT research here. Want to play games while helping contribute to brain research? Visit GamesWithWords and TestMyBrain. These test sites let you post your results on Facebook and Twitter to encourage others to take part in these fun experiments.

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