Or so says a study from the University of Virginia at the US. The seven years study made by Timothy Salthouse, indicates that adults get their peak performance around 22 and that their mental decline starts as soon as 27.
We know that one day or another our mental abilities are going to decline. Timothy’s report is just confirming what we all believe and observe around us: after a certain age, people start declining their abilities, not only physical but also mental. As we get older, we become slower, less attentive, and more rigid. And if the claim of the study is correct, this decline can start affecting us at very early ages (that may explain, for instance, the well known phenomenon between mathematicians that says that mathematicians peak performance is around 26).
But here there are good news: in the 21st century we have the tools to avoid brain decline. We can stop brain decline and even reverse it if we know how… and want to make the effort!
The problem of aging
Brain performance decreases with age in several cognitive skills:
- Attention decreases. The result is that we have difficulties concentrating on a single thing. It may happen that we are reading a book and after a while, we have to move back and re-read it because we did not pay attention to what we were reading along the last minute.
- Our ability to analyze at the same time different pieces of information decreases, this means, our working memory performance is lower, and it is more difficult for us to hold in the mind different information at the same time.
- Decline in the long term memory makes us more forgetful. We forget things that we did not forget before, things like where did we put the keys, what is the name of a known person or where did we park the car.
- Decreases our processing speed, what makes us slower in understanding things and taking decisions.
As a consequence of that decrease in performance, we feel reticent to learn new things (because we find it more difficult). Instead, we rely on what we already know. As we will see, avoiding to learn new things increases even more brain decline, in the same sense as an old person that avoids movement (because he may feel insecure), becomes with time less and less able to move. The result: brain decline promotes brain decline.
But how all that decline of abilities starts? Well, it is related with being comfortable and avoiding challenge.
Why decline happens
There are many reasons why brain performance decreases with age, including nutrition and genes, but on top of them, there is a more basic reason:
we do not challenge enough our brain
Around peak performance age we have already constructed most of our mental automatic systems, those are, structures of thinking that allow us to easily move in the world. You can call them habits. From that age, we rely on habits for doing almost everything. We feel comfortable using them because we know how they work and what the expected results will be. Hence, we repeat them once and again to solve the same things.
Once we have built our set of habits, we have created our personal comfort zone. The comfort zone is that psychological place were we feel safe and that we control the situation. We know what to do if something happens. We know how to solve the problems that lie within the zone. It is our zone of (mental) relax.
Everything we do in life is related to the creation of our comfort zone. Above everything, we want to be comfortable in life. Until we have this comfort zone created, we work hard and challenge ourselves in order to create it. And once we achieve to have a more or less wide zone, we decide to stay within it, making challenge and effort disappear from our lives.
Moving only within our comfort zone has two side effects in the brain:
- One, it strengthens the brain connections of the habits we repeat. This means that the more we do the same thing, the more we are condemned to do it again. So we stay within our comfort zone avoiding the use and training of our other abilities that lie outside that zone.
- Two, the capacity of the brain to create new neurons and connections (called neurogenesis) decreases because we don’t use it to learn new things. Again, the effect is that it will be more difficult for us to create new connections, that is, learn new things.
At this point, moving away from that comfort zone is very difficult because we have a limited capacity of creating new neurones. Our normal brain path is already made, and changing it demands a lot of effort. Translation: we feel uncomfortable doing things that we do not master.
By remaining in the comfort zone, our brain is not challenged at all. And without challenge, the brain starts to decrease performance, in the same way as not using our muscles makes them become softer and smaller. Use it or loose it.
Age is not important. Time is.
The conclusion is that the problem of brain decline is not about the age you have, but about the time we have been comfortable. The amount of time we have been without challenging our brain determines the degree of decline we may have (again, genetic conditions and nutrition style may accelerate this decline).
If we have been a long time in our comfort zone, our brain neurogenesis capacity will be small, and we will be too biased to do always the same kind of things.
If that is the conclusion, the solution to the problem is easy: in order to avoid decline we must move away from comfortable situations. We must accept a certain discomfort in our lives in order to perform at peak performance for the rest of our days.
The next question is: which kind of discomfort should we have to keep peak performance for the rest of our lives?
- We can train our brain with brain fitness programs. One example is the Insanity Mind program, an extreme brain fitness program I developed. But there are many others around the Internet (like Lumosity, Brain HQ or CogniFit). If you want to stop brain decline and even upgrade your brain, you should get a brain fitness plan now and start training everyday. For the rest of your life! Fortunately, brain fitness does not require a lot of training time to get you results.
- We can increase our neurogenesis and keep it active by learning new things (this is called neuronic exercises). That is the second recipe: learn new things during the rest of your life. If you know about music, the learn a new language. If you know several languages, then learn a martial art. The important thing is that you keep challenging your brain with new subjects that it did not know before.
A call for stopping brain decline
We are very lucky of living at these incredible times. We know that brain declines with time, but on the other side, we also know that this decline can be stopped (and even reversed!) if we eliminate comfort in our lives.
Hence, decline is not mandatory anymore. We have the tools to avoid such type of life where our last years are the worst because all our abilities have decayed and we can do nothing about it but live it with resignation. These are things of the past! I can affirm that brain decline is obsolete if you want to train… so, what are you waiting for?
Start training your brain now!
About Rick Téllez:
Rick Téllez, PhD is an International Personal Brain Trainer. He has launched the site Insanity Mind about extreme brain fitness, where he teaches routines to upgrade your brain to the next level, and keep it there for the rest of your life!