Do we lose intelligence and creativity as we grow older?

It was popular during the XXth century to say that most scientific discovery are done by young scientists (under 30). The implicit assumption was that the brain decayed over time, like an apple left to rot. The most recent research contradicts this unavoidable decay. While it was once believed that we progressively lost brain cells as we grew older, we now know that we do grow new neurons all the time (Shors et al., 2012). While some people lose their intellectual edge over time, many older individuals do not experience any intellectual decline (even at age 80). In fact, over the 20th century, older people have taken a greater and greater share of the discoveries (Jones, 2005):

Whereas early research typically showed a decline in productivity after the ages of 40 to 45 years, this decline has been absent in more recent studies. (Stroebe, 2010)

It does seem that older scientists are less likely to come up with new paradigms. But this may have nothing to do with biological decay:

(…) at a relatively early stage both the accumulation of knowledge and the establishment of fixed habits of thought may begin to reduce the ability to create radical new abstract ideations that is key to important conceptual innovations. (Weinberg, 2005)

It seems to me that you have options if you want to plan to be an older intellectual:

  • As you grow older, seek to best exploit your existing knowledge: leave radical new ideas to the younger generation.
  • From time to time, drastically change your intellectual habits to keep your brain young.

Further reading: Fluid and crystallized intelligence and Scientific Productivity, Age, and Field (via P. Turney).

Daniel Lemire, "Do we lose intelligence and creativity as we grow older?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 15, 2013.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “Do we lose intelligence and creativity as we grow older?”

  1. I’ve always been thinking that all things being equal, the real productivity killer is the fact that when people get older, it’s usually means they have more responsibilities, a growing family (especially in academia when permanent and stable position tend to be reached around 35-40, the family stuff comes later, the babies around 40-42) which takes all your free time and your energy. Anyway, academics tends to stabilize around 35-40. Then the time it takes for the kids to leave you alone (or divorce to arrive) you can easily go up to 47-50. Then miraculously comes back the productivity, the creativity they’re talking about in that study.

    Yeah, yeah, it’s a rant from a family dad who gave up yet another deadline because everyone was sick for weeks in his family.
    My brain is fine, not my sleep and certainly not my peace of mind.


  2. There was an old science fiction story with the premise that once you did anything sufficiently creative, the world conspired to prevent that from happening again. The story was firmly tongue-in-cheek … but perhaps not entirely far from the truth. 🙂

  3. Thank you for posting this.
    I don’t feel the least bit less creative as I enter my 40s.
    On the contrary, I have more experiences and examples to build off of, remix, etc.
    You don’t have to think outside of the box.
    Especially if you have lots of boxes to try.

  4. Lots of boxes… Yeh.

    Read up on the social/cognitive psychology work in the last couple years. In theory I have all the factors that contribute to neuroplasticity, and the development of the ultrafast pathways. In practice, I find that I have usually reached a conclusion before a coworker has finished phrasing the question.

    But most of my time seems to go to explaining old solutions, yet again. And again. And again.


    Yes, I know that intelligence has an average. But I thought… long ago… er, nevermind.

  5. Be careful about using specific small facts from other disciplines as if they were general facts. Most of the data we have on neurogenesis come from mice hippocampus, a structure very useful in short-term memory, but those memory are later some-how moved to the cortex (at least in human, see case of HM) which is central to cognition. Evidences of neurogenesis in the human adult cortex are much weaker as far as I know, but I may not be up-to date.

  6. @Francois Rivest

    It does not seem like there is much human cortical neurogenesis in general, but there is growing evidence of neurogenesis in the human cortex following damages:

    the present current data indicate the presence of a regional regenerative response in human cerebral cortex (Nakayama et al., 2009)

    Why isn’t there measured cortical neurogenesis in healthy human beings? A related question is whether normal cell losses in the cortex cause cognitive decline. It seems that there is no evidence that it does. So it could be that we simply don’t normally require cortical neurogenesis. But when we do, our body is able to provide it.

    I don’t think that I misrepresent the research: we did go from a belief that damages to the brain were hopeless to a much more optimistic outlook.

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