4 Charts | Brain Training & Age | Visualized Science

Reviewed by The Clinical Committee

August 23, 2019

  • Are older brains less sharp than younger brains?

  • Not necessarily. With practice, a 75 year old can perform just as well as a 35-year-old on cognitive tasks.

  • Combined with a lifetime of experience, there is no reason why age should be a barrier to learning a new skill.

Does aging slow your brain?

Does aging slow your brain?

Figure 1: Does aging slow your brain? With training, a 75-year-old can nearly match 35-year-olds in adapting to new cognitive tasks.

It's commonly said that older people may be slower to learn a new task, but they more than makeup for it with knowledge and experience.

A new study shows that while this may be true, an 80-year-old can beat a 30-year-old at mental agility with practice.

Researchers collected performance data on cognitive tests from thousands of individuals on the brain training platform Lumosity.

They measured task switching, which is the ability to adapt to a new mental challenge. In our hectic lives and a world that continues to change faster, this skill is more important than ever.

Source: A large-scale analysis of task switching practice effects across the lifespan

Cognitive Response Times in Older Individuals on Lumosity

Response Time with Age

Figure 2: Response Time with Age. 75-year-olds can respond to new situations just as fast as 35-year-olds with practice. 75-year-olds benefited more from practice than 35-year-olds.

Researchers found that older individuals had a slower response time than younger individuals. A 75-year-old retiree takes several more seconds on average to adapt to a new task compared to a 35-year-old.

However, with practice, a 75-year-old becomes nearly as fast at adapting to new tasks as someone in their 30s, though small differences remain.

As the above chart shows, older individuals benefit more from practice than younger individuals.

Accuracy on Cognitive Tests on Lumosity

Cognitive Performance with Age

Figure 3: Cognitive Performance with Age. With practice, individuals in their 70s are just as accurate at mental tasks as individuals in their 30s.

Similar to the data on response times, older individuals performed less accurately than younger individuals on a cognitive test.

With practice, however, the average 75-year-old performed just as well as someone in their 30s.

This suggests that even though older people may be slightly slower to respond to a new situation, they can adapt and perform at the same level as someone in their “prime.”

Source: A large-scale analysis of task switching practice effects across the lifespan

Practice can make up for differences in age

75 vs 45: Cognitive Comparison

Figure 4: 75 vs 45: Cognitive Comparison. With practice, a 75-year-old can adapt to a new task just as well as a 35-year-old with less practice

At every level, younger individuals required less practice than an older individual, as expected.

With enough practice, however, an older individual should be able to routinely beat a younger individual.

The chart above compares the performance of a 75-year-old and a 35-year-old. A retiree with 12 rounds of practice in a task-switching challenge can perform just as well as a 35-year-old with 3 rounds of practice.

Decision Thresholds with Age

Decision Thresholds with Age

Figure 5: 75 vs 45: Decision Thresholds with Age. Older individuals are more conservative in their decision making. With age, we take longer to decide and require more evidence.

One reason why older individuals respond slower and make decisions slower is that they have a higher decision threshold. It takes less evidence for a younger individual to make a decision than an older individual. As people age, they think longer and think harder about decisions before making a change.

Keys to Health

These data show that there is some truth in the saying that age is just a number. Your age does not necessarily determine how sharp your mind is.

If you or your parents want to learn a new skill at an older age, you should go for it. Just be sure to keep practicing.

Even with brain teasers, a retiree should be able to perform just as well as someone in their 30s with practice.

They may take slightly longer, but they will produce comparable, if not better results.

Source: A large-scale analysis of task switching practice effects across the lifespan

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