Several types of intelligence peak at age 50

Older doesn’t just mean wiser.

It also means smarter, at least in some ways.

Take our ability to do basic maths, for example, or our command of a large vocabulary. Contrary to popular opinions about intelligence fading over time, both of those skills (and several others) continue to improve until we reach our 50th birthdays, according to new research published earlier this month.

Many abilities, of course, follow the conventionally recognised pattern of peaking around age 18 and getting worse over the rest of our lives. But the study reveals some striking new findings about how our skills change over time:

Cognitive skills rise and fall psychology intelligence graphPsychological ScienceSTM = short-term memory; WM = working memory; WAIS = Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.

While we doubtless get worse at some things as we get older (such as remembering basic information for short periods, shown in purple, or keeping track of details over the long term, shown in orange and green), we also get much better at others (like big-picture comprehension and understanding, shown in red, and overall knowledge, shown in blue).

Several other skills ripen later too, as far out as middle age.

Our ability to read others’ emotions, for example (shown below as the “Mind-In-Eyes Task”), and recall events that have just happened (“WM: Digit Span, replication”) peak as late age 47 and 35, respectively:

On the one hand, the results are stunning. (Who would have guessed that we’d get better at multiplication and division at as we age?)

On the other, though, the findings make sense — as we get older, we read more books, watch more movies, and have more conversations with different types of people (so it’s only natural that our vocabularies expand a bit), but our brains get a bit less sharp at remembering the tiny details of people, places and things we encountered long ago.

“At almost any given age, most of us are getting better at some things and worse at others,” lead study author and MIT department of brain and cognitive sciences researcher Joshua Hartshorne told Business Insider.

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