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Is it all downhill (cognitively speaking) after age 24?

Researchers analyzed thousands of hours of stored data from the performance records of 3,305 StarCraft2 players, aged 16 to 44.

Thought you had until at least age 50 to worry about your brain slowing down?

Well, think again (and quickly, if you can). For according to a new Canadian study, our cognitive motor skills — the ability of our brain to process and then react to new information — peaks at age 24.

After then, it’s apparently all downhill.

“Among the general public, people tend to think of middle age as being roughly 45 years of age, after which there are obvious age-related declines in cognitive-motor functioning,” write the authors of the study. “Once ‘over the hill,’ experience and wisdom, the consolation prizes of age, are hoped to be sufficient to either attenuate this decline or at least compensate for it indirectly. Aging research has shown that this general conception is incorrect. There is much evidence that memory and speed on a variety of cognitive tasks may peak much earlier.”

Oh, dear.

‘A ruthless war game’

For the study, which was published online this week in the journal PLoS One, researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver analyzed thousands of hours of stored data from the performance records of 3,305 StarCraft2 players, aged 16 to 44. The game is described in an accompanying press release as  “a ruthless competitive intergalactic computer war game that players often undertake to win serious money.”

StarCraft2 “brings several important advantages to the study of aging,” according to the study’s authors. It’s played in real time, for example, a factor that requires players to act and make decisions quickly. It’s also played by people of various ages and skill levels — and for sustained periods of time.

Using complex statistical modeling, the researchers figured out how long all the players took to react to the moves of their opponents. (This is one of the first scientific studies to use such “big data.”) They then compared the performances at different ages.

A matter of milliseconds

The analysis revealed, as the press release notes, “an earlier-than-expected slippery slope into old age.”

“After around 24 years of age, players show slowing in a measure of cognitive speed that is known to be important for performance,” states Joe Thompson, the lead author of the study and a psychology doctoral student, in the press release. “This cognitive performance decline is present even at higher levels of skill.”

The decline is small in absolute numbers. In fact, it can be measured in milliseconds. On average, a 39-year-old in the study reacted 150 milliseconds (.15 seconds) slower than a 24-year-old.

But that’s still a significant difference, says Thompson and his colleagues. In relative terms, the study found that for each 15 years of age, cognitive speed dropped by 15 percent — and, again, no matter what the player’s skill level.

In other words, experience did not make up for the decline in cognitive motor skills.

Adaptive strategies

Something else did, however. “Older players, though slower, seem to compensate by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently than younger players, enabling them to retain their skill, despite cognitive motor-speed loss,” says Thompson.

The older players relied much more heavily on keyboard shortcuts, for example, to implement their strategic decisions. 

That finding suggests, says Thompson, “that our cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood, but are constantly in flux, and that our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation.”

Thank goodness for that.

Unknown cause

Thompson and his colleagues didn’t investigate the biological causes of the decline, but they speculate that it may have something to do with a metabolic shift in the “ratios of N-acetylaspartate (NAA) to choline (Cho),” which begins in the brain during the early 20s.

PloS One is an open-access journal, so you can download and read the entire study at the journal’s website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/16/2014 - 09:42 am.

    In other words

    A 20 year old might be slightly better at braking suddenly to avoid an accident;
    A 40 year old might have anticipated the potential accident and not had to brake suddenly.

  2. Submitted by Nathaniel Finch on 04/16/2014 - 10:21 am.


    Maybe older players take StarCraft2 less seriously than 24-year olds. They may actually feel there are more important things in life.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/16/2014 - 02:53 pm.

    Video Games

    Sure, those little kids may have the twitch skills and cognitive abilities to react quickly to a changing situation, but I’ll still beat their posteriors red and make them thank me for it. At the end of the day experience and guile will beat out youth and reaction time. I habitually beat the pants off the teenies in Age of Empires, a RTS (real time strategy) game very similar to StarCraft. Every now and then I’ll meet some young gun slinger who who wants to take on the big dawg, but he’s always sent packing back to sit on the porch.

    Thanks for playing, son! Let me know if you want any tips. 248!

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/16/2014 - 05:20 pm.

    So cognition is all about speed, is it ?

    This reminds me that at Princeton, some of the grad students who took seminars with Einstein complained of how slow he was. You know, he wanted to go over those calculations one more time, stop and carefully consider unquestioned assumptions, and so on.

    A real bore, that Einstein, for those *brilliant* students who raced to their conclusions with lightning-quick speed !! If only they weren’t being held back by that plodder, Einstein !!

  5. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 04/17/2014 - 06:14 pm.

    We’re in luck

    For this study, “the sample includes 3276 males and 29 females” “so no generalizations here will be extended to the latter population”. So Ms. Perry, we’re in luck.

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