Mark Zuckerberg once said that “young people are just smarter.” While there was some disagreement among those who heard his speech and Zuckerberg later apologized, he’s not alone in his sentiment. The general population seems to believe that the human brain peaks in the late teens or twenties, and everything is downhill from there.
What seems to be happening here is that most people equate thinking quickly with thinking well. Fluid intelligence, which is the ability to think and recall memories rapidly, peaks at about age 20 and then slowly declines from there, which is where we likely get the notion that all our brain functions have a similar trajectory.
If you’re past your twenties, you’re probably not terribly happy about this idea. Maybe it’s because you feel like you really are going downhill. Or maybe it’s because you feel that you still have some amazing cognitive strengths that people aren’t appreciating to their full potential. Either way, we have some good news.
While some cognitive faculties do indeed peak when you’re young (like fluid intelligence), there are several types of cognition, some of which continue to get better well into middle age. Here are four of those mental functions and what you should know about them.
Although your understanding of the trigonometry or calculus you learned as a young adult may have faded away, your general understanding of mathematical functions continues to increase until somewhere around age 50. This means that whatever mathematical skills and concepts you managed to learn and retain over the years will come more easily to you in your later years. So put away your calculator; you won’t be needing it anytime soon.
General Knowledge and Comprehension
This one makes sense, doesn’t it? The more time you spend in the world, the more you learn about what’s happening in the world. And while you forget some of it, there’s still plenty up there to use. Your ability to understand and explain concepts, as well as the number of facts you know, continues to increase until somewhere around your late 40s or early 50s, and even longer for some people! Congratulations on having a little extra of something we might call “wisdom.”
Creativity is another cognitive function that peaks somewhere around age 50. Take John Goodenough as an example (and yes, that’s his real name). In 1980, at the age of 57, he co-invented the lithium-ion battery that revolutionized so much of technology. Then, at the age of 94, he invented and submitted a patent for another kind of battery that is so light, cheap, and safe that it will probably force gas-fueled vehicles to bow down to the electric cars of the future.
Aren’t you glad old brains can still work in new and innovative ways? Whatever the reason, we’re proud of the middle-aged and older people out there who still like to take a crack at creative endeavors. Get out your craft bins and woodworking tools! Or your battery experiments, if that’s what you’re into.
Ever wonder why older people are so good at crosswords? As it turns out, vocabulary is a skill the elderly have more than the young. It peaks at about age 60 or 70, long after the other cognitive abilities on this list have begun to go downhill, and long long after functions like fluid intelligence have started to decline. Now’s the time to write a book, dabble in poetry, play a tricky word game with friends, or just do a simple word search. Your vocabulary is finally ripe and ready for use!
MIT’s Joshua Hartshorne, who co-authored the 2015 study on these later-peaking types of cognition, had this to say about it:
“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. There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them.”
This is great news for people who thought they were past their mental prime. You’re still smart, and you might still be getting smarter in some ways!
So get out there and do something great with that beautiful brain of yours—even if it’s just beating your grandkids at Trivial Pursuit. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not smart enough to do what you want to do!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?