Twenty-four is the new 40.
That is according to researchers at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, who have found that measurable declines in cognitive performance begin to occur at age 24. In terms of brainpower, you are over the hill by your mid-20s.
The researchers measured this by studying the performance of thousands of players of Starcraft II, a strategy video game. If tennis is a hybrid of boxing and chess, as novelist David Foster Wallace held, then Starcraft is a hybrid of boxing, chess, Risk, Monopoly and Candy Crush. The game is incredibly fast-paced and complicated. The goal is to harvest resources, build an army and crush your opponent, who is trying to do the same.
Starcraft players must focus on the long-term goal of building a healthy economy that can sustain an army of hundreds of units, while simultaneously maneuvering and issuing commands to each of those units, often individually. Because everything happens in real time, the only limit on the performance of players is the speed at which they are able to zip around the playing field and perform actions via their keyboard and mouse.
The game provides a real-world laboratory for testing cognitive ability under pressure. It is used in a University of Florida honors class to teach “critical thinking, problem solving, resource management, and adaptive decision making.” In studying game replays, the researchers at Simon Fraser found that “looking-doing latency” — the delay between when a player looked at a new section of the game field and when they performed an in-game action — is lowest among 24-year-old players.
After 24, that lag only increases as you get older. The researchers calculate that over an average 15-minute game of Starcraft, a 39-year-old player loses 30 seconds to cognitive lag vs. a 24-year-old. In a game where performance is measured in hundreds of actions per minute, this is a huge deficit.
Even worse news for those cognitively over the hill is that the researchers have found “no evidence that this decline can be attenuated by expertise.”
Yes, you get wiser as you get older, but wisdom does not substitute for speed. At best, older players can only hope to compensate “by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently than younger players,” the authors say.
So there you have it. Scientific evidence that people cognitively peak at age 24.