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Longevity Briefs: Your ‘Cognitive Peak’ May Be Later Than You Think – At Least, If You’re A Chess Grandmaster

Posted on 20 October 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: The exact age at which cognitive decline begins is not easy to measure. Some studies estimate that cognitive performance in certain tasks peaks as early as age 22. As the brain is thought to be fully developed by around age 25, one might expect cognitive performance to either decline or at best remain the same from this point onward. However, what of the effects of increased knowledge and experience when it comes to a specific and cognitively demanding task?

What did the researchers do: In this paper, researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich studied moves made by chess players at different ages, using data from thousands of games recorded over the past 130 years. They compared these moves to the optimal move recommended by a computer based chess engine as a measure of cognitive performance in chess throughout life.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: On average, performance increased sharply until the early 20s and peaked at approximately 35 years of age. This was followed by a decline in performance after the age of 45, however, this decline was not statistically significant.
It therefore seems that the benefits of increased chess experience outweigh the effects of inherent cognitive decline until at least the age of 45.

Strittmatter, A., Sunde, U., & Zegners, D. (2020). Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 202006653. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2006653117

However, these results might have limited relevance to cognitive tasks outside of chess. Given that the games studied come from chess world championships, the cognitive abilities of these players are not representative of the wider population. Moreover, such chess players are highly dedicated to practicing and building experience, and it is therefore unsurprising that the benefits of said experienced appear outweigh the effects of brain ageing.

Nevertheless, it may encourage some to know that with sufficient dedication to a given task, it may be possible to achieve a high level of performance even in older age – at least, when that task is primarily cognitive in nature.

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