We might not think of ourselves as "old" — but society will often remind us that we are! How many times have we heard that Aaron Rodgers was over the hill at 39 years old? Or that women over 40 can no longer find work in Hollywood? There are countless other examples of these unwanted reminders that "it's all downhill from here." But fear not! Science tells us that there are plenty of mental and physical peaks that we'll reach in the second half of our lives.
We know what you're going to say. You're going say, "If chess isn't a young man's game, then how come the current chess champion is 30 years old and all of the top-ten players are under the age of 35?" Well, just bear with us, and we'll explain.
In 2020 researchers Anthony Strittmatter, Uwe Sunde, and Dainis Zegners published a paper called "Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run." The team studied 125 years of chess matches — that's over 1.6 million moves across 24,000 games — to find when chess players statistically reach their peak.
The conclusion was that players reach "a peak at an age of around 40 years" when comparing their chess moves to those of a chess engine. It was also noted, "Performance decreases above the age of 45 years, although the decline is not statistically significant."
They reasoned that "becoming an expert in chess and other cognitively demanding tasks" was not simply a case of having "higher innate cognitive abilities." Instead, they believed "training and the accumulation of experience" were equally important.
"Sustained Attention Across the Life Span in a Sample of 10,000: Dissociating Ability and Strategy" may not seem like the most thrilling of titles, but this 2015 study is very illuminating. The paper was led by Drs. Francesca Fortenbaugh, Joe DeGutis, and Michael Esterman.
The researchers collected data from 10,000 people who'd had a go at a cognitive test on TestMyBrain.org. “While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their mid-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused,” Dr. DeGutis said in a statement.
The team concluded that 43 years old was the peak of our ability to stay focused for a decent period of time. There was some bad news, though: this peak is then followed by "a gradual decline in older adults."
But don't worry, co-author Dr. DeGutis claimed that focus is "highly trainable." He explained, "Activities such as spending more time outdoors, exercise, cognitive training, and meditation are ways in which people at any age can enhance their ability to concentrate."
PayScale has been conducting research into the gender pay gap since 2015. And in 2019 the organization also revealed the differences in earnings peaks between men and women. The study used data from over 1.4 million workers.
PayScale asked workers to complete a salary survey and provide other important information that could impact people's wages. You'll perhaps not be surprised to learn that the pay gap is very real, but the ages at which men and women reach their earnings peaks could be a revelation.
The research revealed that women "reach their peak earnings at the age of 44." This peak is on average $66,700 for women who have one bachelor's degree or more. No spoilers, but we'll come to the salary peak for men later in our list.
In 2023 PayScale noted that the gender pay-gap continues to be a reality. "Women who are doing the same job as a man, with the exact same qualifications as a man, are still paid less than men for no attributable reason, year over year. There is not equal pay for equal work," the company noted on its website.
If the idea of attempting an ultramarathon fills you with a sense of dread, it could be because you haven't yet reached your peak for this kind of exercise. For the record, the ultramarathons studied for this paper were 100km long, or about 62 miles.
In fact, for the 2020 study "Performance in 100-km Ultramarathoners — At Which Age It Reaches Its Peak?" researchers Pantelis T Nikolaidis and Beat Knechtle "analyzed 370,051 athletes... [44,601 women and 325,450 men] who finished a 100-km ultramarathon between 1959 and 2016." The peak for men and women differed in interesting ways.
"The age of peak performance was 40-44 years in women and 45-49 years in men when all finishers were analyzed," the study concluded. The Guardian also noted that this finding fell broadly in line with other research around the subject.
A different study of ultramarathoners suggested that this might, in part, be because older athletes are better at staying injury-free. Martin D Hoffman and Eswar Krishnan concluded, "Runners tend to be well into adulthood and with several years of running experience before running their first ultramarathon."
"How well can you read the emotions of others just by looking at their eyes?" That's the question posed by Lab in the Wild's "social intelligence test." The answer will apparently tell how well you can perform "team-based problem-solving tasks."
Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine led a study that analyzed this data — and more besides — for the paper "When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak? The Asynchronous Rise and Fall of Different Cognitive Abilities Across the Life Span." They found that people peaked at many different things later in life.
The paper concluded that there was "a long period of relative stability in performance between the ages of 40 and 60 years" when it came to emotion perception. This was much later than the peak for, say, working memory.
"What was interesting," Dr. Hartshorne told The Guardian in 2023, "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." Dr. Hartshorne also insisted that this was not the only research that proved that emotional intelligence peaked later in life.
In their 2010 paper, "Demographic Profiling of Elite Dressage Riders," authors Lucy Dumbell, Jenni Louise Douglas, and Donna De Haan argued, "Equestrianism is uniquely classed as an 'early start, late specialization' sport." That means competitors have been riding for ten years before deciding upon a discipline.
We recognize that the possibility of competing in dressage is not available to everybody — or even most people. You have to own a horse, after all, and the fact that people get to the peak of their dressage powers later in life complicates matters further.
You only have to look at the most visible competition in dressage to see that age is just a number in the sport. The American Stefan Peters earned himself a team silver medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 when he was 56, and he was hardly unique.
Other older dressage competitors include the 66-year-old Australian Mary Hanna in Tokyo and Japan's 71-year-old Hiroshi Hoketsu, who put on a good show at the London Olympics in 2012. Hoketsu had been competing in the Olympics since 1964!
In 2012 researchers Ulrich Orth, Richard W Robins, and Keith F Widaman published the paper "Life-span development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes." The study was a reminder that self-esteem is a major part of our mental well-being.
"The results suggest that self-esteem has a significant prospective impact on real-world life experiences and that high and low self-esteem are not mere epiphenomena of success and failure in important life domains," the paper concluded. It's good to know, then, that other things being equal, our self-esteem is improving as we pass 40.
The team of researchers looked at data that spanned 12 years and over 1,800 participants. The ages of the people involved ranged from 16 to 97 years old. It turned out that self-esteem peaked "at about age 50 years."
It's perhaps important to note that it was revealed that "self-esteem increases from adolescence to middle adulthood... and then decreases in old age." Unless you are Japanese. A 2020 study proved that it's entirely possible that self-esteem in Japan increases even beyond the age of 50.
"Historically, it was thought there were roughly two aspects of intelligence," Dr. Hartshorne told The Guardian in 2023. "How fast you can think, and how much you already know." We also usually think younger folk are better at faster stuff and older folk are better at knowledge tests.
"It turns out the world is a lot more complicated than that," Dr. Hartshorne said. "We saw stuff peaking at about 18 as expected; we saw stuff peaking in the middle; and we saw stuff peaking later than expected." When it came to who performed better at math, the academic's study had a conclusive answer.
For their "When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak?" paper, Dr. Hartshorne and co-author Dr. Germine looked at the data from 2,450 "healthy, cognitively unimpaired Americans between the ages of 16 and 89 years." These subjects also came from "geographically diverse locations."
The result was that people performed best at math problems from the age of 50. "For the everyday person, the word 'aging' implies a breakdown of things," Dr. Germine explained to The Harvard Gazette in 2015. "'Ripening' might be better."
You may have been starting to wonder when — if ever — we were going to get to when men reach their salary peak; we'd previously learned that on average women reached their earnings summit at 44. Yet men reached peak earnings at 55.
According to the PayScale study, the average peak earnings for men with a bachelor's degree is $101,200: that's $34,500 more than women. PayScale's former chief economist Katie Bardaro explained to CNBC Make It in 2018 that the primary reason for this was "job choice."
"Jobs that are more common for men tend to have longer real-wage growth," Bardaro explained. She gave examples of jobs such as software development and engineering. Examples of typically female careers included teaching or social care.
These jobs, Bardaro said, "tend to have shorter real-wage growth." But she did say that men's wages do stop growing in the decade before retirement. "The pay growth leveling-off there really just shows that you hit a certain ceiling in your career that is very hard to overcome," she said.
According to The Guardian, the average age of Nobel Prize winners is 44, but this fact alone doesn't give you the whole picture. After all, Malala Yousafzai was just 17 years old when she earned her prize in 2014.
There was also a 25-year-old winner — Lawrence Bragg — in 1915 and he and Yousafzai make the average age a little bit askew. To get a better picture of the age of Nobel prize recipients, we have to break it down into categories. Luckily, National Geographic did this work for us in 2018.
The ages at which most people have won Nobel Prizes are 61 and 63. So if you've been toiling away at your world-changing idea for years now, don't worry: so did everybody else. Depending on your specialty, too, you could have even longer than that.
According to National Geographic, the average age of the winners in physics was 56, in chemistry and medicine it was 58, in peace it was 61, in literature it was 65, and in economics it was 67. The only thing to overcome now is that at the time of the study, there had only been 50 female winners out of the 900 who had been honored with such prizes.
In a 2010 study called "Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age," researchers Igor Grossmann, Jinkyung Na, and Richard E. Nisbett looked into wisdom and old age. Their conclusion was that "older participants showed more wisdom than younger."
"The results suggest that it might be advisable to assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling, and intergroup negotiations," the paper concluded. The researchers also suggested that clinicians should "emphasize the inherent strengths associated with aging."
In this case, "wisdom" was measured by presenting a group of participants with a social conflict and asking them for solutions. Impartial experts assessed these solutions to see which group — young, middle-aged, or old — had the best ideas.
The average age of the very best of the older participants was 64.9 years. "Wisdom results from the accumulated set of things we’ve seen and experienced," professor Daniel Levitin told The Guardian in 2023, adding, "The more you’ve experienced, the more wisdom you’re able to tap into."
In 2013 Hannes Schwandt published a paper with the gloomy-sounding title "Unmet Aspirations as an Explanation for the Age U-shape in Human Wellbeing." But there was some good news nestled within the bad when it comes to life satisfaction.
The study used a "unique panel of 132,609" people to measure "life satisfaction expectations" across the span of our lifetimes. Schwandt's paper explained that there are two peaks in this regard. The first one comes when we hit 23 years old.
Then there is a major lull in life satisfaction before we peak again at the age of 69. If you plot these peaks and troughs on a graph, it results in what the researcher calls a "U-shape in human wellbeing."
The paper concluded that life satisfaction seemed to hit the ultimate slump in our mid-50s and declined again after the age of 75. We guess the moral of the story is to enjoy those sweet spots when you get to them: it seems that satisfaction might not last!
You might expect to reach your sexual peak in your 20s, but there are a couple of studies that say otherwise. For instance, in 2018 Match.com sponsored a survey called "Singles in America," polling over 5,000 unattached adults.
This survey found that 66-year-old single women and 64-year-old single men were having the best-quality sex. Sex therapist Emily deAyala told USA Today that older people "are more likely to speak up about what they like and dislike, which is a skill that is crucial for great sex."
In 2016 Miriam K Forbes, Nicholas R Eaton, and Robert F Krueger led a paper called "Sexual Quality of Life and Aging: A Prospective Study of a Nationally Representative Sample." It studied over 6,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 93.
Their results indicated that sexual quality of life (SQoL) stays steady as we get older. "Aging 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," the report read. "We summarize these findings as sexual wisdom."
Dr. Hartshorne and Dr. Germine's paper "When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak?" saw 10,000 participants facing off on a puzzle website. The results implied that people's vocabulary scores got better as they got older, and Dr. Hartshorne wasn't surprised.
"There are things that really require a lot of time," he told The Guardian in 2023. "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."
The results of Dr. Hartshorne and Dr. Germine's paper suggested that 65 years old was optimal for language skills. This was in contrast to studies performed in the 1990s, suggesting that "the peak in vocabulary is getting later and later," according to Dr. Hartshorne.
"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," Dr. Hartshorne told The Guardian, "whereas now, both for work and entertainment, we spend more time with print."
"Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies" is not the most thrilling title for a paper — sorry, Brent W Roberts, Kate E Walton, and Wolfgang Viechtbauer — but the study did show that people tended to get more "agreeable" as they became older.
"Not everyone over 60 becomes nicer," neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin told The Guardian in 2023. "Everyone knows that sourpuss down the street. But generally, yes [we do become nicer]. There are both structural changes in the brain and neurochemical ones."
"The amygdala, the brain’s fear center, shrinks with age, causing older adults to become more trusting, compassionate, and empathic," Dr. Levitin continued. "Men produce less testosterone, which makes them less aggressive and less disagreeable."
"There emerges a positivity bias in memory recall — older adults tend to recall more positive memories and fewer negative memories," Dr. Levitin said. "They also become more tolerant and accepting — what we call 'grandparent syndrome.' One of the reasons is that, after a certain age, you realize: I’ve had it pretty good. I’ve made it this far. I’m grateful."
If it sometimes seems hard to look in the mirror and be happy with what you see, rest assured that your outlook will improve as you grow older. That's if a poll from 2014 is to be believed, anyway.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index asked over 80,000 Americans how much they agreed with the statement, "I always feel good about my physical appearance." There were five possible answers — from strongly disagree to strongly agree — and the majority of people did either "agree" or "strongly agree."
When the researchers drilled down into the results, they found that middle-aged people were the least likely to be satisfied with their appearance. On the other hand, 66 percent of those aged 65 or over felt positive about their bodies.
According to The Guardian, body confidence reached its peak for women at age 74 and for men at age 80. Another study — "The body image construct among Western seniors: a systematic review of the literature" by Mathieu Roy and Hélène Payette in 2012 — reported that "the importance given to body image as it relates to physical appearance is lower" in Western seniors.
The 2010 paper "A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States" by Arthur A. Stone, Joseph E. Schwartz, Joan E. Broderick, and Angus Deaton gave us an interesting insight into happiness. Their study was based on a telephone survey of 340,847 Americans.
"Happiness may seem like a young-person thing," Dr. Levitin told The Guardian in 2023. "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."
Participants of the study were asked to visualize a ladder with ten rungs. The top rung represented their best life and the bottom rung represented their worst. They were then asked to say where they saw themselves on this ladder.
When plotted on a graph, the results showed the U-shape pattern that has been found in other studies. It was the oldest group of participants, aged between 82 and 85, and the youngest group, aged between 18 to 21, who answered with one of the highest average rungs: just over 7.
If you're approaching an age with a 0 on the end, you may be experiencing the familiar urge to make a big life decision. Perhaps you'll buy that sports car you always wanted, or take that vacation you've always dreamed of? This is a scientifically proven phenomenon.
In 2014 researchers Adam L. Alter and Hal E. Hershfield published the paper "People search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age." That's a pretty self-explanatory title, and the results show that this situation is not unique to Americans.
So if you or any of your friends are 9-enders, don't be surprised if you find yourselves spending more time thinking about signing up for a marathon. It's clearly not called a "mid-life crisis" for nothing!
The paper concluded, "Six studies show that adults undertake a search for existential meaning when they approach a new decade in age (e.g., at ages 29, 39, 49, etc.) or imagine entering a new epoch, which leads them to behave in ways that suggest an ongoing or failed search for meaning (e.g., by exercising more vigorously, seeking extramarital affairs, or choosing to end their lives)."