50 is the new 42: technology is making brains of middle-aged younger


Sarah Knapton Science Editor

September 1, 2015

The increasing mental demands of technology is making older people sharper than previous generations, scientists have shown

50 is the new 42, scientists have concluded, after discovering that the brains of middle-aged people are getting sharper and younger to keep up with the demands of modern technology.

People over age 50 are scoring increasingly better on tests of cognitive function and researchers believe it is because of the increased mental stimulation of computers and mobile phones.

Although experts have previously worried that technology was causing people to stop thinking, in fact, it appears that the mental skills needed to operate increasingly complex gadgets are making people smarter.

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The average person now needs to remember 10 passwords a day to access work computers, open email, use internet banking, pay online bills or log on to social networks.

Once inside programmes, they are often confronted with a vast array of commands and options, leading to increased decision making.

A population study of English over 50s found that the test scores of people today were the same or better than those of people up to eight years younger, who were tested six years ago.

Researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysisat in Austria, also looked at population surveys in Germany in 2006 and then again in 2012, which measured brain processing speed, physical fitness and mental health.

Cognition normally begins to decline with age, and is one key characteristic that demographers use to understand how different population groups age more successfully than others.

But although physical and mental health declined over the six year period, the academics found that cognitive test stores increased significantly.

“We think that these divergent results can be explained by changing lifestyles,” says IIASA World Population Program researcher Dr Nadia Steiber.

“Life has become cognitively more demanding, with increasing use of communication and information technology also by older people, and people working longer in intellectually demanding jobs. At the same time, we are seeing a decline in physical activity and rising levels of obesity.”

Valeria Bordone a researcher at IIASA who carried out the English studies added: “On average, test scores of people aged 50 plus today correspond to test scores from people four to eight years younger and tested six years earlier.”

The studies both provide confirmation of the “Flynn effect” — a trend in rising performance in standard IQ tests from generation to generation.

But the academics say that changes in education levels in the population can explain part, but not all of the effect.

Miss Bordone added, “We show for the first time that although compositional changes of the older population in terms of education partly explain the Flynn effect, the increasing use of modern technology such as computers and mobile phones in the first decade of the 2000′s also contributes considerably to its explanation.”

Last year a study by the University of Aberdeen and NHS Grampian found that children who grew up during the Second World War became far more intelligent than those who were born just 15 years before because they ate healthier diets.

Researchers think that cutting rich, sugary and fatty foods out of the diets of growing children had a hugely beneficial impact on their growing brains.

Consequently, children born in 1936 grew up to have IQ scores on average 16.5 points ahead of those born in 1921.

A recent study found that some 72 per cent of over-55s are familiar with basic internet terminology such as “Wifi”, “router”, “cursor” and “bandwidth”, compared to only 61 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds.

The research was published in the journals PLOS One and Intelligence.

This article was written by Sarah Knapton Science Editor from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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