Researchers put together a set of short, simple computer games designed to assess various cognitive skills-like processing speed, vocabulary, and social cognition-for players ages 10 to 89.
The scientists found that different brain skills peak and decline at wildly different ages, starting as early as your late teens and as late as your 70s.
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So which of your mental skills are already over the hill, and which ones are still getting sharper?
Here’s a look at how four of your major cognitive abilities change as you age-and how to make the most of them right now.
What it is: How fast you can take in new information and respond to it. It’s basically thinking on your feet.
When it peaks: Your late teens.
Why it matters: Faster processing speed means faster problem solving. Young people may have the edge because they can do everything quicker, like analyze visual information or make motor responses (such as typing an answer to a question).
But remember: Coming up with a fast solution isn’t always the same as coming up with the right solution.
“It’s good to be able to run fast, but it’s better to know where you’re going,” says study coauthor Joshua Hartshorne, Ph.D.
During your teens and early 20s, your peak ability to draw on experiences and make decisions based on them is still decades away.
How to make it better: Breaking a sweat can boost your processing speed, at least temporarily. One recent University of North Texas study found that after just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, participants completed cognitive tests with fewer errors-and up to twice as fast-compared to their sedentary counterparts, perhaps because physical activity improves your ability to focus.
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What it is: Mental juggling, or your ability to hold multiple pieces of information in your brain for a short period of time and recall it as needed to complete tasks or solve problems, says Hartshorne.
When it peaks: Your late 20s to early 30s.
Why it matters: You use working memory to hang onto stuff in the short term, like remembering what you need to pick up at the drug store or solving a math problem in your head.
How to make it better: Go ahead, play Call of Duty without a shred of guilt.
In a recent Temple University study of college-aged men, people who played action video games for an hour a day for 30 days boosted their working memory.
The researchers believe this might be because the hectic, fast-paced nature of action games forces players to hold lots of information in their brains at one time.
What it is: Your ability to perceive and interpret social information, like body language or facial expressions-and respond accordingly. If you lack this skill, you may be guilty of the 5 Annoying Habits Keeping You Single.
When it peaks: Your 40s.
Why it matters: You rely on your social cognition skills to understand someone else’s behavior-like knowing not to bring up your performance review when your boss looks pissed-or to mold someone’s impression of you. (Example: smiling to let your date know you’re happy to be with her).
How to make it better: Let your guard down. Things like hugging, holding hands, kissing, and having sex all stimulate the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which may bolster your social cognition.
A new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that men with higher blood levels of oxytocin show more activity in the areas of the brain that are responsible for social cognition.
What it is: Your ability to learn the meaning of new words.
When it peaks: Your mid 60s to early 70s.
Why it matters: Broader vocabulary helps you communicate more effectively and better understand the world around you-from expressing your feelings to deciphering new technical lingo at work.
How to make it better: Just a few decades ago, vocabulary skills peaked during people’s 40s-suggesting that things in our environment are rapidly boosting our word-learning abilities.
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“There are many things in our culture that make us think more. Movie plots, TV plots, and book plots have gotten more complicated,” Hartshorne says.
In other words, the more thought-provoking stuff you expose yourself to, the more new terms you might pick up along the way. Permission to binge on Game of Thrones: granted.