The Washington Post

Your brain is over the hill by age 24

24 is the new 40.

That's 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're over the hill by your mid-20s.

The researchers measured this by studying the performance of thousands of players of Starcraft 2, a strategy video game. If tennis is a hybrid of boxing and chess, as 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.

Like economists, Starcraft players think in macro and micro terms - they must focus on the long-term goals 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 player performance is the speed at which they're able to zip around the playing field and perform actions via their keyboard and mouse. For a sense of what the game looks like from the player's viewpoint, check out the video below.

The game provides an excellent real-world laboratory for testing cognitive ability under pressure. It's already 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 age 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 versus 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 of us who are cognitively over-the-hill: the researchers find "no evidence that this decline can be attenuated by expertise." Yes, we get wiser as we get older. But wisdom doesn't 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 we cognitively peak at age 24. At that point, you should probably abandon any pretense of optimism and accept that your life, henceforth, will be a steady descent into mediocrity, punctuated only by the bitter memories of the once seemingly-endless potential that you so foolishly squandered in your youth. Considering that the average American lives to be 80, you'll have well over 50 years to do so!

Your sole solace? At least you don't live in Russia.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
Play Videos
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Learn to make this twice-baked cookie
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
Play Videos
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
The art of tortilla-making
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat
Next Story
Jason Millman · April 16, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.