It’s easy to fixate on everything you’re getting worse at as you age. I’m 48, and trying to remember a phone number long enough to dial it, write under time pressure or sprint after the bus all leave me marvelling – if that’s the word – at my evaporating abilities. Muscle and bone mass decline from your 30s, and midlife can feel like a slippery, baffling slope towards decay (yes, I am fun to be around, thank you for noticing). But are there things even someone as ancient as me can still get better at?
The assumption that ageing is inevitably a process of cognitive and physical decline is one Daniel Levitin, professor of neuroscience at McGill University, sought to challenge in his book The Changing Mind. “Our societal narrative is not based on science – it’s based entirely on prejudice,” he tells me. “Contrary to popular myth, we never stop learning or growing new brain connections.” Hearing this, I’m reminded that my newfound love of birds has furnished me with a shiny new mental library of calls and feather patterns. I’ve also managed, with practice, to improve my terrible sight-singing at choir.
“Older adults may slow down and not be able to retrieve memories or respond as quickly as younger adults, but they can be superior in a range of problem-solving skills, particularly those that involve experience and accumulated knowledge,” Levitin adds. Experience, determination and focus can compensate for lack of speed and loss of muscle in some physical activities: Olympians are getting older (okay, only two years between 1992 and 2021) and elite athletes seem to stay at the top of their game for longer: take Roger Federer (42) and Serena Williams (41) or American footballers Tom Brady, who retired this year at 45, and Peyton Manning, who bowed out just before turning 40.
So could your prime still be ahead of you? In many areas, we just don’t know, because there is a lack of quality research on the topic. “Lots of things have never been tested in terms of age-related change,” one researcher told me, bemoaning the lack of funding and qualified staff to examine the big data required. In an ageing society, it feels shortsighted and a missed opportunity not to devote serious resources to exploring what older people do better. But in the meantime, here are some peaks that we do seem to hit in later life.
Chess: 40 – A study of 125 years of chess matches, which analysed more than 1.6 million moves in 24,000 games, found players made the most “optimum” moves at about 40. Performance started to decline from about 45, but not to a statistically significant degree. There is a lot going on in chess – perception, memory, problem-solving – but older players’ “training and the accumulation of experience” seem to confer a lasting advantage.
Ultramarathons: 40-49 – Over to the merciless world of ultramarathons (anything longer than a standard marathon, often 50 or 100km, and including multi-day races of many hundreds of kilometres). A 2020 study of people who had finished 100km ultramarathons found that women peaked at between 40 and 44, and men at 45 to 49. This isn’t a fluke: research consistently confirms that ultrarunners peak far later than other athletes. Even more interestingly, the longer the race – duration or distance – the older the peak performance seems to come.
Dr Beat Knechtle has conducted much of the research on age and ultramarathons; the 59-year-old Swiss GP is also an ultra-athlete himself. It’s a lot to do with experience and mindset, he says: “Experience, starting slow, going slow, focusing on the aim ... younger athletes always tend to want to achieve a place, a podium, a time. The older ones like me say the first aim is to finish, and finishing means preparing and going to the race knowing it takes, for example, five or 10 or more days.” Knechtle has just completed a terrifying-sounding “deca iron”, which is 10 triathlons in 10 days; he was the only finisher (the professional triathlete who came second gave up after seven days).
Is there a physiological limit beyond which no amount of tactical advantage will be enough? Knechtle suspects about 70, though he does mention several ultra-winning 70-year-olds, including one who beat him. Older people, he speculates, have free time to focus their energies on training.
Reading a stranger’s mood: 40s (and beyond) – In the “mind in eyes” test, participants look at photographs of strangers’ eyes and have to guess their mood; it’s used as a test for emotional intelligence. I was curious, so tried it myself. The black and white pictures were harder to interpret than I expected (irritated or enraged; curious or flirtatious?) but I went with my gut and scored “better than 89 per cent of participants”. That fits with research that found people start achieving the highest scores in their 40s.
Dr Joshua Hartshorne, professor of psychology at Boston College, Massachusetts, analysed the data as part of a wider study into when various cognitive abilities peak. “What was interesting,” he says, “was that people seemed to plateau in their 40s, but you don’t see much in the way of decline after that; it doesn’t seem to get worse.” This has been replicated, Hartshorne says, in other tests of emotional intelligence. We continue to read people well from our 40s right into old age.
Dressage: 50s – A number of equestrian Olympians are older (Britain’s Nick Skelton won show jumping gold at 58 in Rio; Australia’s Andrew Hoy won team silver and individual bronze in eventing at Tokyo aged 62), but especially dressage riders. Dressage – horse dancing, to be reductive – might not be the most accessible of sports, but age is no barrier to excellence. Hiroshi Hoketsu competed in the London Olympics at 71 and Australia’s Mary Hanna in Tokyo at 66, while Stefan Peters won team silver for the US at 56 at the same games.
Author Jojo Moyes has ridden since childhood; this year she not only entered her first dressage competition at 54, but won. Training was tough: “I nearly stopped because I thought: I’m just too old and fragile to deal with this,” she says. Deciding to view it as “a process” and focus on incremental improvements kept her going. Age brings mental resilience and perspective, she thinks. “You’re better able to rationalise. You say: okay, I might f**k up, but it’s not a disaster. Also, I think, at this age, we have a lot more willpower to put in training. I understand that nothing comes without effort. I don’t have natural ability, so the only thing that’s going to work is me putting the hours in. It’s been incredibly gratifying to feel I can challenge myself and do it.”
Self-esteem: 50-70 – Healthy self-esteem is a key component of good mental health, and a long-term data analysis has found it climbs from adolescence onwards, peaking somewhere between 50 and 70. Interestingly, 2020 research from Japan found self-esteem continued to rise from adolescence right into old age, without the drop other studies had found. The researchers speculated this might be because people in Japan have “more humble and balanced attitudes toward themselves, not just in old age”, making peaks and steep declines less likely.
Arithmetic: 50 – In the same investigation into cognitive peaks, Hartshorne and his co-author, Dr Laura Germine, studied historical IQ testing data for more than 2,000 Americans. The results were more varied than expected. “Historically, it was thought there were roughly two aspects of intelligence,” says Hartshorne. “How fast you can think and how much you already know.” The baseline assumption is that young people think fast and so perform better on tests that require speed, while older people do better on tests of knowledge. “It turns out the world is a lot more complicated than that,” Hartshorne says. “We saw stuff peaking at about 18 as expected; we saw stuff peaking in the middle; and we saw stuff peaking later than expected.” One of the later-life peaks – perhaps later than you might imagine – is in arithmetic ability, with test subjects best able to solve arithmetical problems around age 50.
Winning a Nobel: 61 and 63 – Aim high: apart from physics prize winners, who tend to be younger, Nobel recipients are often in their 50s and 60s. The average age of winners is now 44, but 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai and 25-year-old Lawrence Bragg, who won the physics prize in 1915, are significantly skewing that. The ages at which most winners have received the ultimate recognition are 61 and 63 (tied with 33 prizes each). If you stick to literature, you have even longer to hit the big time: in 2018, National Geographic calculated the average age of a Nobel Literature Prize winner at 65.
Conflict resolution: 65 – In 2010, researchers tried to test for “wisdom” by asking participants to study social conflicts, both at community level (for example, the desire of Kyrgyz people living in Tajikistan to preserve their customs while Tajiks want Kyrgyz people to assimilate fully) and interpersonal, and propose solutions, which were then evaluated blind by experts. “Older participants showed more wisdom than younger ... and middle-aged adults,” the study concluded, with 64.9 as the average age of the participants in the top 20 per cent of performers. For Levitin, it’s self-evident wisdom increases with age. “Wisdom results from the accumulated set of things we’ve seen and experienced, our ability to detect patterns in those experiences and our ability to predict future outcomes based on them. The more you’ve experienced, the more wisdom you’re able to tap into.”
Sexual satisfaction and wisdom: 60s? It would be nice to believe Match.com’s 2018 “Singles in America” survey, which polled more than 5,000 single adults, finding the optimal age for sex among single women to be 66 (and 64 for men). But not all investigations have offered such cheering news: a 2020 German longitudinal study found “the older the individual, the less satisfied they were with their sex life” (although 35 per cent of 65- to 80-year-olds were satisfied). In Sweden, however, a study of over-60s found only 24 per cent were dissatisfied with their sex lives.
It’s a confusing picture, but another study of more than 6,000 people in the US aged 20 to 93 found “SQoL” – that’s sexual quality of life – remains stable as we age. The authors suggest ageing “may be associated with the acquisition of skills and strategies that can buffer age-related declines in SQoL, particularly in the context of a positive relationship”. They called this skill set “sexual wisdom”, which is a nice concept.
Vocabulary: 65 – Part of Hartshorne’s 2015 study on cognitive peaks involved crunching data from 10,000 people trying out tests on a puzzle website. In that, vocabulary scores peaked at 65. That isn’t so surprising, says Hartshorne, whose area of expertise is language: “There are things that really require a lot of time. There’s just so much language you have to learn. It doesn’t matter how fast you think; there’s no way of getting around the fact it takes decades to even come across certain words.”
Interestingly, performance in this seems to have improved significantly between the IQ data Hartshorne studied from the late 90s (which showed vocabulary starting to shrink from late 40s) and the online test. “The peak in vocabulary is getting later and later,” says Hartshorne. That may well be about the changing nature of work and the way society is becoming increasingly text-dependent (most vocabulary is learned through print, not talking, he explains). “We may have been seeing people’s vocabulary declining in their late 40s back in the late last century because they didn’t do a lot of reading once they were out of school, whereas now, both for work and entertainment, we spend more time with print.” All that scrolling might be doing you some good after all.
Being nice: over 60 – Research suggests older adults are more emotionally stable and less impulsive; they are better able to maintain positive relationships; and “agreeableness” increases substantially with age. Do we just become nicer? “Not everyone over 60 becomes nicer,” says Levitin. “Everyone knows that sourpuss down the street. But generally, yes. There are both structural changes in the brain and neurochemical ones. The amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, shrinks with age, causing older adults to become more trusting, compassionate and empathetic. Men produce less testosterone, which makes them less aggressive and less disagreeable. And there emerges a positivity bias in memory recall – older adults tend to recall more positive memories and fewer negative memories. They also become more tolerant and accepting – what we call “grandparent syndrome”. One of the reasons is that, after a certain age, you realise: I’ve had it pretty good. I’ve made it this far. I’m grateful.”
Body confidence: 74 (for women) – In a 2014 poll of 80,000 Americans, satisfaction with body image peaked for women at 74. For men, it came even later, at about 80. A poll from 2014 is hardly definitive evidence, but a literature review in 2015 also found “the importance given to body image as it relates to physical appearance is lower” in western seniors than their younger counterparts.
Happiness: 82 – ″Happiness may seem like a young person thing,” says Levitin. “But the surprising thing is when older people are asked to pinpoint the happiest time of their lives, the most common response is not an age in childhood, teens, or early adulthood, it’s 82.” (That emerged from a telephone survey of Americans’ wellbeing.)
When you look at everything we can excel at in later life, perhaps that is not so surprising after all. – Guardian