As muscle mass, strength, and function begin to deteriorate from the age of 30, new research on professional chess players suggests that the brain is actually aging more slowly and gradually.
The scientists analyzed chess games for 125 years and tracked individual performance over a lifetime. They drew a hump-shaped curve, a tiny little speed threshold that applies to different generations of chess players.
Prior to a player’s early 20s, performance on the chessboard seems to be increasing rapidly. Skills then seem to plateau around age 35, peak at age 40, and steadily decline after age 45.
Taking into account factors other than age, such as the color of the chess pieces, the length of the game, the generation of the player and the strength of the opponent, the cognitive decline after age 45 decreases only marginally and in a statistically insignificant way.
Age pattern of peak performance among chess players from 1890 to 2014 (Strittmatter et al., PNAS, 2020)
While peak brain performance is likely to vary slightly from task to task, results tend to be in line with other estimates for the highest cognitive abilities, even those designed specifically for chess.
However, much research on cognitive performance usually relies on skills such as decision-making speed and working memory. However, chess is different as it also depends on training and experience.
“Chess has a complex neural basis of automated processes related to identifying the configuration of pieces and their relationships on the board, involving circuits from different brain regions,” the authors argue.
“The quality of a certain step thus reflects an ideal measure for the performance of a demanding cognitive task that is gaining importance on the job market.”
Additionally, data from chess tournaments has been carefully recorded for decades, which makes it very useful for psychologists and neuroscientists studying cognitive skills over time.
Using such data, a 2006 study found that chess performance declined much more slowly than other physical activities such as swimming.
The new research again draws on this wealth of information to figure out when we might be at our cognitive peak.
Analyzing more than 1.6 million individual moves in 24,000 chess games, the scientists rated the skills of over 4,000 players, 20 of whom were world champions between 1890 and 2014. A computerized chess machine was used to determine which moves were best.
Over the course of a career, it has been found that most players peaked by the age of 30 and maintained that performance for about 10 years before their game began to deteriorate.
Similar to age, the authors also found a similar hump-shaped performance curve for the experience. For example, among thousands of less experienced opponents, performance rose sharply by around 37 years of age.
This suggests that experience can change the age at which someone reaches their peak performance, and this could explain why chess players peaked earlier and earlier in the last century, as the following graph shows.
Age pattern among generations of chess players from 1890 to 2014. (Strittmatter et al., PNAS, 2020)
The rapid spread of chess knowledge, the advent of chess engines, and the ease of playing online mean that younger players are gaining more knowledge about chess and gaining more experience earlier than 125 years ago.
In the 1990s, when computerized chess games first became popular, chess performance rose sharply among professionals.
The study is based on expert knowledge and therefore likely represents the upper limit of cognitive performance throughout a person’s life.
Even so, the results are encouraging. The recent surge in chess skills in young people suggests that with the right tools and experience, the peak cognitive skills can be achieved early, and the long tail of the curve suggests that we can maintain these skills decades into the future.
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