Cognitive aging is widely misunderstood. It is true that many cognitive capabilities begin to decline in one’s twenties, foremost among them fluid intelligence (the ability to solve novel problems). However, new studies are emphasizing that this is only half of the intelligence equation. The other half–crystallized intelligence–continues to improve all the way into one’s seventies. And what’s more, new theories are being advanced that fluid intelligence, once thought to be static and genetic, can be amplified through focused brain training.
Crystallized intelligence is the ability to draw upon skills, knowledge and experience. It strengthens with age. It is why Laura Carstensen, who directs Standford’s Center of Longevity, believes the 50 year old brain is “fantastic,” because processing speed and fluid intelligence haven’t declined significantly by this point, and experience/skills are often extremely high. This is why the most successful trial lawyers and surgeons have some gray hair: their clients know that if an unexpected problem occurs, they are likely to have seen it before, and will know the answer. Contrast this with a fluidly intelligent twenty-something with little experience: she may be well-equipped to reason her way through the dilemma, but she isn’t guaranteed to reach the right answer, and will most certainly take longer to reach it than her experienced counterparts.
On top of this, new studies are suggesting that the 50 year old brain may be able to rebuild (or maintain) fluid intelligence through focused brain exercises. Although Lumosity has been fined for over-promising benefits from its brain training programs and under-delivering on those promises, scientists have developed certain programs that seem to help increase fluid intelligence. For instance, scientists at the University of Maryland have demonstrated significant increases in fluid intelligence over successive tests (note, some of this is likely attributable to the test repetition effect) utilizing proprietary brain training programs.
In sum, the reality is that it isn’t all downhill after 30 from a cognitive standpoint. Indeed, the experts would argue that it’s uphill for multiple decades. Couple this with advances in brain training technology, and nootropic supplements like Mental Mojo (which combat aging and enhance focus), and the future of cognitive aging is actually quite bright.