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Over the hill at age 24 when it comes to cognitive-motor reaction time decline?

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A new study, "Over the Hill at 24: Persistent Age-Related Cognitive-Motor Decline in Reaction Times in an Ecologically Valid Video Game Task Begins in Early Adulthood," published online April 9, 2014 in the journal PLOS One, says we're over the hill in terms of cognitive motor performance if you're over age 24. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if you’re over 24 years of age you’ve already reached your peak in terms of your cognitive motor performance, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

Simon Fraser University's (SFU’s) Joe Thompson, a psychology doctoral student, associate professor Mark Blair, Thompson’s thesis supervisor, and Andrew Henrey, a statistics and actuarial science doctoral student, deliver the news in a just-published PLOS ONE Journal paper. Our cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood, but are constantly in flux, and that our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation. That brings to mind the situation where people under 21 may not have a fully-developed brain capability of judging the consequences of their actions or the full extent of empathy for how another person feels as a result of the young person's actions.

In one of the first social science experiments to rest on big data, the trio investigates when we start to experience an age-related decline in our cognitive motor skills and how we compensate for that

The researchers analyzed the digital performance records of 3,305 StarCraft 2 players, aged 16 to 44. StarCraft 2 is a ruthless competitive intergalactic computer war game that players often undertake to win serious money. Their performance records, which can be readily replayed, constitute big data because they represent thousands of hours worth of strategic real-time cognitive-based moves performed at varied skill levels.

Using complex statistical modeling, the researchers distilled meaning from this colossal compilation of information about how players responded to their opponents and more importantly, how long they took to react. “After around 24 years of age, players show slowing in a measure of cognitive speed that is known to be important for performance,” explains Thompson, according to the April 11, 2014 news release, "Study says we're over the hill at 24." Thompson is the lead author of the study, which is his thesis. “This cognitive performance decline is present even at higher levels of skill.” But there’s a silver lining in this earlier-than-expected slippery slope into old age.

“Our research tells a new story about human development,” says Thompson, according to the news release. “Older players, though slower, seem to compensate by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently than younger players, enabling them to retain their skill, despite cognitive motor-speed loss.”

For example, older players more readily use short cut and sophisticated command keys to compensate for declining speed in executing real time decisions

The findings, says Thompson, suggest “that our cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood, but are constantly in flux, and that our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation.”

Thompson says this study doesn’t inform us about how our increasingly distracting computerized world may ultimately affect our use of adaptive behaviors to compensate for declining cognitive motor skills. But he does say our increasingly digitized world is providing a growing wealth of big data that will be a goldmine for future social science studies such as this one. If you're interested in StarCraft II, check out the site, "StarCraft II Official Game Site - Battle.net."

Simon Fraser University is consistently ranked among Canada's top comprehensive universities and is one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 125,000 alumni in 130 countries.

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