Brain Peaks at Age 35 and Declines after 45, Study of Chess Players Says

24,000 professional chess matches that were held between 1890 and 2014 were analyzed.
Derya Ozdemir

Measuring the exact age at which cognitive decline begins is not an easy feat; however, we always had a vague idea of it. While some studies suggested that cognitive decline begins in the late 20s, a study by Polytechnique Paris, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat München, and Erasmus University researchers suggests otherwise.

The researchers studied moves made by chess players of different ages in thousands of chess games over the past 125 years to see our cognitive abilities in action.  

This novel research technique enabled them to find that cognitive abilities in humans peak at age 35 and begin to decline after age 45 — much later than it was previously thought.


24,000 professional chess matches analyzed

The researchers analyzed the people's performance in 24,000 professional chess matches that were held between 1890 and 2014, studying the moves of 4,295 players and their 4,274 opponents. 20 of the players were world champions. 

By comparing the moves made by each player against optimal moves suggested by a chess engine over the course of their career, the researchers were able to follow the skill level of each player over a lifetime.

It was seen that, for most players, game performance increased rapidly until they turned 20. Afterward, improvements would slow down and reach a peak at approximately age 35.

Source: Strittmatter, A., Sunde, U., & Zegners, D./Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences

The players were able to maintain their abilities for approximately 10 years for the most part, and it was after the 45-mark that their skills would begin to deteriorate. However, the researchers stated that this decline "was not statistically significant."

It is dubious if the results' relevance to cognitive tasks outside of chess is perfectly applicable; however, it definitely shows that if one invests enough time and effort in a cognitive task, the performance they'll achieve will be present for many years to come.

The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.