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Psychology in the News: Cognitive Functions Decline after Age 27

I still remember how freaked out I was when I turned 25. I figured my life was practically over and yet I had accomplished almost nothing. After all, John Keats died at 25 and he had written all that great poetry already! And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who mentored Keats, died at 28. I figured I might as well just hang it up since it was too late to become a great writer (I was a bit depressed at the time, I think). Little did I know that at the relatively youthful age of 25 I was actually at my “cognitive peak” and my brain was about to start deteriorating. At least that’s what

Prof. Timothy Salthouse

Prof. Timothy Salthouse

Professor Timothy Salthouse of the Salthouse Cognitive Aging Lab at the University of Virginia in his recently published longitudinal study of 2,000 adults, ages 18-60. Specifically, he found that “reasoning, spatial visualisation and speed of thought” start to go downhill after age 27. From the BBC:

To test mental agility, the study participants had to solve puzzles, recall words and story details and spot patterns in letters and symbols.The same tests are already used by doctors to spot signs of dementia.

In nine out of 12 tests the average age at which the top performance was achieved was 22.

The first age at which there was any marked decline was at 27 in tests of brain speed, reasoning and visual puzzle-solving ability.

Things like memory stayed intact until the age of 37, on average, while abilities based on accumulated knowledge, such as performance on tests of vocabulary or general information, increased until the age of 60.

I actually noticed this when I went back to finish my undergraduate degree as a 40-something adult. My developmental psychology professor brought in a children’s intelligence test. I did fine, except that I got the answers out just a few seconds after my younger classmates. I realized that my cognitive processing ability was slowing down, although it was still functioning pretty well.

Still, there were advantages to being an older student. I had read so much more and had had so many more experiences that the younger students, that I had lots more connections in my brain to help me process, store, and recall new information. I also had the advantage of being more focused on my education–I wasn’t looking for a romantic relationship and wasn’t interested in going out and getting drunk on Friday and Saturday nights. As for spatial skills, I don’t think I ever had any of those to begin with. That’s why I hate geometry.

So what happens to the brain after 60? Well, in the past ten years studies have found that people can actually grow new neurons, even well into old age, if they continue to stimulate their brains with new experiences and gaining new knowledge. Well, after I went back to college, I could literally feel myself getting “smarter.” It seemed that my brain started working better and it became easier for me to make new connections. I’m guessing I might have made some new neurons as well as making lots more connections between different parts of my brain. Speed of processing isn’t everything, after all, and from the looks of Professor Salthouse, he must think life is still worth living after 60.

George Carlin

George Carlin

As I was browsing around the internet tonight, I happened upon this interview with George Carlin in Psychology Today. It’s actually the last interview he ever gave. Here’s an excerpt.

I’m 71, and I’ve been doing this for a little over 50 years, doing it at a fairly visible level for 40. By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine that works a certain way: the observations, the immediate evaluation of the observation, and then the mental filing of it, or writing it down on a piece of paper. I’ve often described the way a 20-year-old versus, say, a 60- or a 70-year-old, the way it works. A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data they’ve experienced, either seeing or listening to the world. At 70 it’s a much richer storage area, the matrix inside is more textured, and has more contours to it. So, observations made by a 20-year-old are compared against a data set that is incomplete. Observations made by a 60-year-old are compared against a much richer data set. And the observations have more resonance, they’re richer.

So if I write something down, some observation—I see something on television that reminds me of something I wanted to say already—the first time I write it, the first time I hear it, it makes an impression. The first time I write it down, it makes a second impression, a deeper path. Every time I look at that piece of paper, until I file it in my file, each time, the path gets a little richer and deeper so that these things are all in there.

Now at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that’s when I bring the craftsmanship. That’s when I pull everything together and say, how I can best express that? And then as you write, you find more, ’cause the mind is looking for further connections. And these things just flow into your head and you write them. And the writing is the really wonderful part. A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.

What a perfect description of the aging brain. That is exactly how I feel as an older graduate student. I’m a bit slower than my colleagues, but my years of life experience, the hundreds–thousands?–of books I’ve read, have given me a very rich and wide-ranging network of associations. I wouldn’t trade my aging brain for my 25-year-old brain now. I think back and I realize how little I knew about the world then, how little I understood about myself or about other people. I was focused mostly on myself in those days. Today I think more about how I can help my family, especially my youngest family members, and I try my best to share my knowledge and experience with the young students I teach.

I think it’s wonderful that psychologists are beginning to learn about how the brain works with all the new imaging equipment that is available these days. But we really are at the very beginning of that process. We know so little and have so much more to learn. When I was 25, the conventional wisdom was that you’re born with just so many brain cells, and if you kill hundreds of them getting drunk or stoned, they’re never coming back. Today we know that’s not true. Who knows what surprises future studies of the brain and cognition will bring?

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54 Responses

  1. The good thing is I have gotten much happier with age because I can’t remember what I was mad or upset about! You start to live in the present because I no longer have anything that could be called a memory. Age works for me.

  2. wow…interesting post! I loved George Carlin.

    But how does this square with the studies that indicate the brain isn’t even mature until 35?

  3. lol – I’m looking at Dr Salthouse’s picture and thinking “look how old he is – he probably misinterpreted all the data”

    j/k! 🙂

    • I thought the same thing.

    • I’m sure graduate students did all the work though. That’s how it works. Graduate students are like the indentured servants of academia. And they use the undergrads as study participants.

  4. I take comfort in this. At some point, if I actually use my brain, I can feel smarter. Frankly, I feel that I’ve spent the last many years dragging my body around exhausted to it’s utmost, with nothing left for my brain.

  5. I just read that Natasha Richardson is on life support – no brain function – following her ski accident.

  6. All hail age 27!


  7. Goodnight, my loves!

  8. OT, but In other news, the parade of incompetent boobs continues. Seems Geithner is finally going to get some help at Treasury. From Lewis Alexander, CitBank’s chief economist.


    Wow, let’s find ALL the losers who orchestrated this fiasco and drove their companies into the ground, and give them ALL a job at Treasury! Woohoo! Party time for the hedge fund boooooyz! BYOB, and a funnel for those tax dollars!

    • probably all these AIG people are slated to work at treasury but were waiting until they’d collected their retention bonuses

  9. This is hysterical. According to ABC news, the left is starting to get angry with Obama. Get a load of the names in the story.

    “People have no confidence in what’s happening right now,” Jane Hamsher, the founder of the liberal blog FireDogLake, said Monday on ABC NewsNOW’s “Politics Live.”

    “People on the right and the left are looking at all this money being shoveled to banks [by] friends of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers … and they’re not seeing any accountability,” she added. “They don’t know where the money’s going, they don’t know how much is gone, and it’s all nontransparent and extremely suspicious.”

    Hamsher is organizing an online petition drive to press lawmakers to block further bank bailout funds. The Obama administration has signaled that it anticipates needing more funds to stabilize the nation’s banking system.

    Oh goody. A petition. That should do the trick.

    • Perhaps a sternly worded letter to follow? 🙂

      • LOL

        • I notice that the Kool-aiders aren’t actually blaming Obama over the “Blame Dodd” stories. They’re blaming Turbo Tax Tim and the T-men.

          They’re not ready for sobriety yet. Baby steps only, but it’s still progress.

    • I’m glad that people are mentioning the re-negotiation of the auto workers contgracts. Seems that the auto ilndustry got much less money as well.

  10. “He’s walking down a very, very dangerous path right now,” liberal activist and author David Sirota told ABCNews.com. “It betrays the exact problem that people are angry at — that there’s one set of rules for Wall Street and Washington and another set of rules for everybody else.”

    “It’s becoming real, what the difference is between Obama’s rhetoric about power coming from outside of Washington, and the reality of an administration filled with Washington and Wall Street insiders,” Sirota said.

  11. Hi BostonBoomer. This was a good post. I had a similar experience when I went back to school in my 40s (and working a Reference Desk at the same time) Maybe the brain is like a muscle?

    • In a way it is like a muscle. The brain is very plastic and adaptable. The more you use it, the better it gets.

      • The more you use it, the better it gets.

        I remember it being that way in my teen-aged years. 😉

  12. It makes sense – when I was in my early twenties I knew all the answers, but know I can barely understand the questions.

    • That’s because in your early twenties you thought you knew it all, and now you are wise enough to understand how much you don’t know.

  13. Katiebird,

    Thank you for putting those buttons on my post. Now if I only knew how to use them….

  14. Obama = bankers stealing from the American taxpayer.

    Bush = Oil companies and contractors stealing the from the American taxpayer.

    Where’s the change? Oh! Now it’s the bankers instead of the oil companies/contractors.

  15. Chill folks.
    A person may lose some degree of short term memory as a mature adult but the ability to synthesize, integrate and analyze information increases.

    I resumed my education at 37 and boot started myself with SMART nutrients, self hypnosis, learning skills courses etc and ended up valedictorian at JC and graduated magna cum laude. This is not unusual for resumers. Traditional aged students simply cannot compete with older adult’s life experience, inner direction and sheer determination. Our capabilities of analysis, integration and perspective give us distinct advantages.

    I belonged to a study group with 6 other resuming students and we called ourselves the 7% solution. All of us ended up finishing grad school and launching new careers.

    Don’t be discouraged by this nitwit article. Full force ahead I say and good luck to everyone who perseveres in academic studies.

    • I wasn’t aware my post was discouraging. It certainly wasn’t meant to be. And “nitwit?” We frown on personal insults here.
      BTW, I graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 average at age 49….

  16. I guess we will see some new spin from Dear Reader.

    “Obama Budget Chief: Numbers Looking Worse”


  17. Hi BB I went back to school when I was 39, too and yes your brain starts working again.

    However I often feel a bit stupid now-I was wondering about the effects of high blood pressure and medications for it. do you know anything about that?

    • I don’t know about that. I do know that blood pressure meds are associated with depression in some people.

  18. morning all fuzzy is still trying to recover from the crud he has I feel better knowing that everyone in our group that went to orlando is getting it!

  19. BB, what a great post, thank you! At 37, I feel “old” whenever I do the famous rescue search for glasses that just so happens to be in a place that is the biggest mess of all: my head.

    There’s hope after all! And George Carlin = HERO.

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