When Does Your Intelligence Peak?

Are we really at our smartest in our 20s? What about the wisdom and experience that come with age? At what age do we strike the right balance between cognitive ability and expertise?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #238

When does our intelligence peak?

Luckily for those of us who are no longer in our 20s, the results of the study showed that we don’t have to put ourselves out to pasture just yet. If you do not have access to the original article, the World Economic Forum has reposted some of the plots from the study for reference. For example, 50,000 test participants showed that our ability to to process information quickly peaks at around age 18 or 19. Our short-term memory tops out around the age of 25 and levels off for about a decade before it starts to slowly decline. Likewise, our skill at recognizing faces (along with many visual short-term memory tasks) is greatest when we are in our early 30s.

Our ability to assess other people’s emotions, however, doesn’t reach its peak until we are in our 40s or 50s.

Our ability to assess other people’s emotions, however, doesn’t reach its peak until we are in our 40s or 50s. Our overall knowledge, including vocabulary, and our big-picture comprehension, also don’t top out until we are around 50 years old on average. After that, they decline but just slightly before leveling off during our 60s (and eventually declining again in our mid-70s).

Why do our brains change as we age?

Researchers believe that changes in our brain’s structure may be linked to the changes observed in our cognitive abilities but more research is needed to fully understand the details of that possible connection. Just last week, researchers in the UK took a huge step in this direction by releasing a large dataset of newborn baby brain scans. This effort is being called groundbreaking and will allow a step-by-step look at human brain development at these crucial early stages.

The peak age for intellectual activity also appears to be shifting. For example, Nobel Prize winners are doing their award-winning work later and later, a result that is consistent across fields of study. The peak age for creativity in physics appears to be around 48 years old on average. So even if you still can’t find your keys, it may not be too late to write that novel or to tackle that next project when inspiration strikes.

Want to see how you stack up? You can check out the puzzles and brain teasers from Hartshorne and Germine’s study at www.gameswithwords.org and https://testmybrain.org.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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