Timothy Salthouse, a University of Virginia professor of psychology and the study's lead investigator, and a team conducted the study during a seven-year period, working with 2,000 healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 60.Participants were asked to solve various puzzles, remember words and details from stories, and identify patterns in an assortment of letters and symbols.
Many of the participants in Salthouse's study were tested several times during the course of years, allowing researchers to detect subtle declines in cognitive ability. Top performances in some of the tests were accomplished at the age of 22. A notable decline in certain measures of abstract reasoning, brain speed and in puzzle-solving became apparent at 27.
However, Salthouse points out that there is a great deal of variance from person to person, and, he added, most people function at a highly effective level well into their final years, even when living a long life.
While average memory declines can be detected by about age 37, accumulated knowledge skills, such as improvement of vocabulary and general knowledge, actually increase at least until the age of 60."These patterns suggest that some types of mental flexibility decrease relatively early in adulthood, but that how much knowledge one has, and the effectiveness of integrating it with one's abilities, may increase throughout all of adulthood if there are no pathological diseases," Salthouse said.
One of the unique features of this project in the University of Virginia Cognitive Aging Laboratory is that some of the participants return to the laboratory for repeated assessments after intervals of one to seven years.
Salthouse's team also is surveying participants' health and lifestyles to see if certain characteristics, such as social relationships, serve to moderate age-related cognitive changes. They hope to continue their studies over many more years, with many of the same participants, to gain a long-term understanding of how the brain changes over time.The findings appear in the current issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging.