How to keep your brain sharp in your 60s and beyond

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It’s certainly good news for anyone in their 40s or 50s. A 2022 study from Heidelberg University in Germany has found that mental performance does indeed rise during childhood and adolescence, before peaking in the mid-20s, – however that it stays fairly constant throughout your 30s, 40s and 50s (rather than declining as commonly thought).

Researchers tracked the mental performance of 1.2 million people, aged between 10 and 80, between 2016 and 2018. Volunteers were asked to complete high-speed mental tests; in one, words and images flashed on a computer screen and volunteers were asked to sort them into one of two categories, such as “good” or “bad”, by pushing buttons.

As a professor of medical gerontology at Trinity College, Dublin, I’ve spent 35 years researching the scientific causes and consequences of ageing on the brain; a topic I explore in my book, Age Proof. Over that time, I’ve read virtually every relevant study. And I can say that these findings, published in the excellent journal Nature Human Behaviour, are strong and convincing.

The results differed sharply from previous research. Partly, this can be explained by methodology. Previous studies on brain ageing tended to compare one group of adults in their 20s with another group in their 60s or 70s. If those in their 70s performed worse than their younger counterparts, researchers would sometimes assume that mental performance steadily fell in the intervening years.

But this latest study from Heidelberg University instead looked at a spectrum of ages – and found that mental performance is far more steady than previously thought.

Those past studies also tended to look at just one element of mental performance: reaction time. Volunteers might have been asked to click a button every time a specific letter came up on their screen. But that’s something of a blunt tool. An older person might have weaker hand muscles, for example, making their movement slower – even though their mental speed is the same as a younger person’s.

It’s also possible today’s 60-year-old is simply more mentally agile, on average, than somebody who was 60 in the Seventies or Eighties. Our exposure to technology has probably boosted our cognitive functions, as has the increasing popularity of puzzles and brain games.

And even once you turn 60, mental decline is not inevitable. But how can it be avoided?

The best ways to keep your mind sharp in 2022

Exercise

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