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Mental Speed: Zero Slowdown to Age 60?

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Improving processing speed - Dr. Axe

As we get older, our brains get a little slower just like our muscles, right? Maybe not by our 30s, but certainly by our 40s and 50s, yes?

Surprisingly, and wonderfully, a new study declares that mental speed can remain high until age 60. If simple decision-making tasks seem to take longer, it’s not because of slower cognitive processing speed; rather, it’s more to do with caution about decisions and their consequences, for example.

Let’s take a look at this study along with tips to stay mentally sharp into our twilight years.

What Is Cognitive Processing Speed?

Cognitive processing speed is the demonstrated ability to process information rapidly. As discussed in a Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience study, it’s closely related to the ability to perform high-level cognitive tasks. It’s also “often assumed to be the core issue responsible for deficits in performance on complex cognitive measures in aging populations.”

Many theories about processing speed and its relation to age persist, most of which consider there to be a definite age-induced interaction between certain decreased sensory function (such as vision and audition) and a noticeable slowing in cognitive processing speed. Some scientists have even explained that such a supposed decline in cognition and sensory function is due to the aging brain.

Simple as that, right? Not so fast.

Study Finding: Mental Speed Doesn’t Decline Until After 60

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, 1.2 million participants were analyzed to examine age differences in cognitive function, including so-called mental speed. Mental speed can be defined as the speed at which we can deal with issues requiring rapid decision-making.

The study showed that response speed in simple decision-making tasks began to decrease in early as well as middle adulthood. However, authors posit that “response times are not pure measures of mental speed but instead represent the sum of multiple processes.”

After all, our response time begins to slow as early as age 20! But this slowing of processing speed is due to increased “decision caution” and “slower non-decisional processes” rather than simple cognition issues. Decision caution sounds like wisdom, frankly, such as weighing the consequences of different answers you may give.

After the age of 60, some slowing of mental speed was observed. Regardless, this study challenged the common held belief that our mental acuity is a downward slope from an early middle age.

Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp

After that bit of good news, you probably want to know how to increase your mental speed. Remember that processing speed has nothing to do with IQ or intelligence. For example, someone with ADHD may process information more slowly but can be highly intelligent. Same story with someone who may not be a fluid speaker but can still possess high processing speed.

First, let’s first do a mental speed test to see where you’re at. A mental speed test helps measure cognitive processing speed as well as attention, with a focus on “working memory capacity.” The idea is that working on some of these mental challenges can speed up your processing speed over time.

Mental speed tests:

Not so easy, eh?

Besides doing such mental speed drills (and maybe some puzzles along the way), here are some other tips to help you stay mentally sharp:

1. Consume so-called “brain foods” to boost your focus and memory

Brain foods are those that are rich in antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. They provide your brain with energy and aid in protecting brain cells, which helps ward off development of brain diseases. Avocados, beets, berries, bone broth and broccoli make up the top five foods.

2. Keep learning new things

Challenging yourself with new tasks and “breaking out of your comfort zone” is a great way to encourage neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning and experiences.

3. Exercise more often — ideally daily

Getting regular exercise has been shown in studies to help protect both short- and long-term memory. It helps your brain stay sharp by increasing circulation and oxygen to your brain. Plus, like the above, it boosts neuroplasticity by stimulating growth factors and neuronal connections.

4. Get more sleep

Sleep affects your focus, memory, problem-solving abilities, emotion regulation and creativity. Researchers have even found that getting enough sleep plays in a role in memory consolidation, which takes place during the deepest stages of sleep.

5. Consider taking a nootropic

Nootropics are supplements that often contain caffeine or other stimulating ingredients to help with focus. They can include adaptogen herbs, like ginseng and rhodiola, medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps, amino acids like L-carnitine, DHA/fish oil, vitamin B12, gingko biloba, and coffee or green tea extract.

6. Stop trying to multitask

Multitasking just slows the brain down and often results in less productivity. As Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, states, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.” Does that describe you? Stop trying to multitask.

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