• Scientists analyzed professional chess tournaments between 1890 and 2014.
  • They found cognitive ability rises sharply until the early 20s and then plateaus.
  • Performance also steadily increased over the course of the 20th century, steepening in the 1990s, which has coincided with the rise of digital technology.
  • The metric could be used to analyze age-performance patterns, authors suggest.

More than 24,000 chess games played in professional tournaments over 125 years have been analyzed by scientists to measure how age affects cognitive ability.

They conclude that humans reach their cognitive peak around the age of 35 and begin to decline after the age of 45. And our cognitive abilities today exceed those of our ancestors.

“Performance reveals a hump-shaped pattern over the life cycle,” report the authors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Individual performance increases sharply until the early 20s and then reaches a plateau, with a peak around 35 years and a sustained decline at higher ages.”

Cognitive score age chess
The hump of human cognitive ability.
Image: PNAS

Champion moves

Surprisingly little is known how human cognitive ability changes over the course of a lifetime, despite our tasks in the workplace becoming more cognitively demanding.

The study analyzed professional chess tournaments between the years 1890 and 2014, which recorded more than 1.6 million individual moves.

By comparing the human moves with the optimum moves a chess computer would make, the researchers were able to chart how a player’s cognitive performance changed as they aged.

This metric gives an insight into age-performance patterns and their dynamics over time and across age groups, the authors say.

Digital divide

In total, 4,294 players, comprising 20 world champions and 4,274 opponents, were observed.

The study covered all chess world champions since the first generally accepted world champion Wilhelm Steinitz (lived 1836 to 1900) to Magnus Carlsen (born in 1990, world champion since 2013).

Players born after the 1970s showed average cognitive ability around 8% higher than players born around the 1870s.

"Our results suggest that the conditions under which people grow up these days – which of course include the rapid growth of digital technology – have a decisive impact on the development of their cognitive abilities," says Uwe Sunde, Professor of Economics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and one of the report’s authors.

The data also showed performance steadily increasing over the course of the 20th century, and steepening during the 1990s.

“This coincides with a phase when new information technology and the availability of powerful and affordable chess engines on home computers made chess-specific knowledge widely available and dramatically changed players’ preparation possibilities,” the authors say.

Learning skills cognitive cognition ability
Our cognitive ability today is better than our ancestors.
Image: PNAS

Skills of the future

The rapid growth of digital technology isn't just having an effect on our cognitive abilities - it's also shaping the future of work.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 has examined the outlook for technology adoption, jobs and skills in the next five years, including pandemic-related disruptions.

Critical thinking, analysis and problem-solving are among the key skills employers expect to see rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025, the report finds.

But, the authors also warn that the window of opportunity to reskill and upskill workers has become shorter in the newly constrained labour market.