Male gymnasts who win Olympic gold medals have a short career. Their strength peaks at an average age of 21½ years. Some may be surprised that brain power follows a similar pattern to gymnastic excellence. That is best exemplified by top chess players, rated above 2800 – a level only a few players achieve. Players are rated, based on the number of games they win, lose, or draw – as well as the rating of their opponents. In days gone by, the best chess players were mainly an elite group of older men with knowledge that they kept secret.
But no longer: Computers have made chess knowledge, available to everyone. And they force chess players who aspire to greatness to play more accurately. The importance of accuracy favors younger players who can calculate long variations.
Research indicates that brain power peaks at 22.1 So it’s no surprise that for the past few years world champion, Magnus Carlsen, in his early 20s, has been at the top of the rating list, setting a new rating record of 2889.2. Yet, even the mighty Carlsen has not been able to equal the amazing performance of 20-year-old Fabiano Caruana at the prestigious Sinquefield Cup Link. Caruana started the tournament with a win and in his first eight games, he earned a score of 71/2 out of 8. Caruana is at the right age for peak brain function. In every game he seems to calculate better than his opponents.
Professional chess players – caring as they do about winning – study and train for hours. So they surprise those of us, who are involved in science, by spending so little time exploiting what science has revealed to improve their performance.
For example, research indicates that by controlling blood glucose levels before the games, chess players could increase their ability to remember details from past games, and put them to use.2
Watching calorie intake would help too. A study of 50 healthy seniors showed that when they reduced calories by 30 percent, their memory performance improved significantly after only three months.3
Difficult problem solving, which is important to chess performance, may be enhanced too. Researchers at the University of Sidney found thatbrain stimulation with a mild electric current enabled 40% of study participants to find the solution of a problem that was previously unsolvable.4
Soon, great chess players will have to integrate science-based practices into their life. The advantage that competitors gain from doing so will be too great to be ignored.
We are at the beginning of an era when age-related brain decline is becoming a thing of the past. New interventions make it possible for people of any age to increase their cognitive capabilities and excel in the things that matter to them – from business success or balancing a budget to writing great literature.
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1Salthouse TA. When does age-related cognitive decline begin? Neurobiology of Aging. 2009 Apr;30(4):507-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2008.09.023.
2 Dahle CL*, Jacobs BS, Raz N. Aging, vascular risk, and cognition: blood glucose, pulse pressure, and cognitive performance in healthy adults. Psychology and Aging. 2009 Mar;24(1):154-62. doi: 10.1037/a0014283. *Institute of Gerontology, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI48202, USA. PMID:19290746
3 Witte AV*, Fobker M, Gellner R, Knecht S, Flöel A. Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 2009 Jan 27;106(4):1255-60.\*Dept. of Neurology, University of Münster, Albert-Schweitzer-Strasse, Münster, Germany.PMID: 19171901
4 Chi RP*, Snyder AW. Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem. Neuroscience letters. 2012 May 2;515(2):121-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.012. Epub 2012 Mar 14.*Centre for the Mind, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. PMID: 22440856