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« Consistency | Main | Key Principles of the New System III: Getting Stuff Done »

Life ends at 45?

Life ends at 45… Study reveals when our mental powers start to diminish

Huge survey carried out on Whitehall civil servants shows our brains peak earlier than we think

So cry the headlines in The Independent.

But as Disraeli famously said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Does this study really prove something completely different: that ten years working as a civil servant in Whitehall is a very effective way of reducing whatever mental powers you had to start off with?

(I speak as someone who worked in Whitehall for only two years and has never been the same since!)

Reader Comments (22)

Mark - Good take on how these studies work. However, I had an issue with your quote (which I use myself almost weekly). As an American, I wanted to give credit to Mark Twain, who popularized it here. Some cursory research showed me that he gave credit to Disraeli, but there are issues with that credit, also. Here's one explanation I found.

The earliest instance of the phrase found in print dates to a letter written June 8, 1891, published June 13, 1891, The National Observer p. 93(-94): NATIONAL PENSIONS [To the Editor of The National Observer] London, 8 June 1891 "Sir,--It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a 'fib,' the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics. It is on statistics and on the absence of statistics that the advocate of national pensions relies....." Later, in October 1891, as a query in Notes and Queries, the pseudonymous questioner, signing as "St Swithin", asked for the originator of the phrase, indicating common usage even at that date. The pseudonym has been attributed to Eliza Gutch.

Note that 1891 is after Disraeli died. Yet I will give you the possibility that he uttered it and it didn't show up in print until then.
January 6, 2012 at 12:33 | Unregistered CommenterTerri
Our brains peak in preschool years. Everyone know children think faster, learn faster, and make all kinds of mistakes because they don't yet understand, but also because several brain functions haven't matured yet. It takes 45 years for the brain to reach full maturity.

After that it's all downhill. If only I'd known Mark 25 years ago, he could have given me all kinds of brilliant insights on time management he only wishes he could provide now. Except wait, that's completely false, because Mark today is surely more insightful than Mark 25 years ago in this respect.
January 6, 2012 at 14:00 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

<< However, I had an issue with your quote (which I use myself almost weekly). >>
January 6, 2012 at 16:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've noticed the nature of my thinking has changed over the years. I don't think I am as fast in some ways at raw, pure computation. But my ability to grasp big-picture ideas, synthesize, and learn more quickly has steadily increased as far as I can tell (I'm 47).

Right now I've just started taking up sight-singing, having never had any prior music exposure. The learning is difficult and requires a lot of work, but I'm getting it faster than people much younger than I, mainly because I put in the time and effort. I'm not sure how to interpret this. It's possible I'm slower than I was at 20, but that slowness is more than made up for by commitment and self-discipline.
January 6, 2012 at 16:28 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins
Interesting reading in this respect: "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain" by Barbara Strauch. To quote the back cover: "Did you know that your brain gets better with age? It used to be thought that, as our bodies aged, our minds did too. But now new research has revealed that between our forties and sixties our bains are actually in their peak condition". It's an interesting read, and also a comforting one (I'm 47).
January 6, 2012 at 19:21 | Registered CommenterMarc (from Brussels)

I think that the main problem I have found with age is with memory. It's not that I forget things so much as that I can't recall them as quickly as when I was younger. They are all in there somewhere - it's just a matter of getting them out again. On the other hand I do know a lot more than I did when I was young, so maybe there's more for the memory to search through!

But as for the other components of mental activity, I would say I'm at least as quick as when I was younger.

I wasn't joking when I said the study had in fact proved something quite different from what it though it had proved. If you put someone in a working environment which is rule-bound, discourages initiative, where unconformity is frowned on, which requires little imagination and doesn't (let's face it) have much contact with reality, then I think it does have a very deleterious effect on one's mind.

Congrats on the sight singing by the way. Singing is one subject which has consistently defeated me all my life!
January 6, 2012 at 19:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm an avid chess player, and in that context it's abundantly clear that:
0. Children learn faster than older people, especially at ages 10-20.
1. Calculating variations is hard work, and the young (15-25) are able to to this faster and better.
2. Experience compensates, and the best 40 somethings are as good as the best 20 somethings.
3. After 50, energy levels, enthusiasm, and ability to concentrate for long periods wanes.
4. Understanding doesn't decline, though performance does. Yet people who reach the top at 40 can still beat 99.9% of players 40 years later.
5. Bottom line: Until you've put your all into a thing, you can always do more and be more. There are uncounted examples, and few counter-examples.
January 6, 2012 at 21:08 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Mark, the sight-singing has been extremely rewarding and equally frustrating. I'm seriously at the bottom of the learning curve. I haven't been this inept at anything since I was 20. It's skill-based, which means that no amount of intellectual understanding can help me get it any faster.

Here's what I do, however: I drill every day. It is very clear that daily drilling separated by sleep cycles very directly builds capability. There's a measurable difference every day in my skills. That's neat. It's frustrating only because there doesn't seem to be any shortcut; my results are highly correlated with the time I put in and the sleep in between.

When I notice a chronic problem in my practice, I design an exercise for that particular problem. For example, there are certain intervals I just can't remember. So I plunked out little made-up songs (with words and imagery) 30-seconds long on my keyboard that emphasized the troublesome intervals. Then I listen to them for 20 minutes each day until my brain starts to memorize them.

Learning to sing intervals is trickier because I have no outside source of feedback to know if I'm doing it right, which I often am not. For that, I go very slowly with a piano keyboard, and concentrate on listening to the external sound of the keyboard and of my voice, rather than my internal imagination of what the note *should* sound like. I'm gradually becoming able to sing most intervals.

(One intermediary skill in learning to sing intervals has been to explicitly develop comfort singing a note when it sounds dissonant. If a note is playing and I'm supposed to sing a major 7th above it, I have to hold that note even if it sounds a bit jarring to my ear. So paradoxically, I've had to develop the skill of singing a note even when my ear tells me it's out of tune. Because it's in tune, it's just a dissonant harmony.)

P.S. Is there a way to become a registered user of this blog or do I just post as a guest every time?
January 6, 2012 at 22:53 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins

You might find Pitch Perfector a useful program. You can find it at . It shows where you are pitching compared with where you are supposed to be pitching. I don't use it consistently myself, but when I do my singing definitely improves. I think there are other programs which do much the same, but I haven't tried them.

The registration is really intended for people who wish to post on the forum, rather than the blog. But if you would like an account, just send me 1) a sign on name, 2) a display name and 3) a password. You can't post at all on the forum without registration, but with the blog the only advantage is that if you sign in first your comments will appear immediately and won't need to be moderated.
January 6, 2012 at 23:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< I'm an avid chess player >>

I was an avid chess player at about the age of 12 but unfortunately I was completely untalented and eventually gave up in frustration.

I have a suspicion that IF I took it up seriously now (I've no intention of doing so!) I might do rather better at it because I would now understand much better that the secret of success would be practice, study, more practice and more study. I would (I think) be more equipped for the slow slog.

Note that I said "do rather better" not "do well"!
January 6, 2012 at 23:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is the most detailed source I could find for the quotation:

It seems there are a lot of possibilities. Not that it really matters; I like the phrase.
January 7, 2012 at 1:48 | Registered CommenterMartyH
This is a very interesting thread.
As other posts on this thread have discussed, in most of our endeavors, being methodical and organized is far more important than raw brain power. Personally, my memory is very bad from the beginnig and hence I have never been able to rely on it for anything. There are theories which insist that we hardly use 25% of our brain power anyway - and even that kind of heavy usage is for a very short time in a given day or week.

On a more philosophical note, we are bestowed with different capabilities at different points in our life. Harnessing them to the maximum to do whatever we want to is the key.
January 7, 2012 at 4:47 | Registered CommenterSG
I thought life starts at 40? And now it will end at 45!? Woah.
January 7, 2012 at 5:09 | Unregistered CommenterBruce @Printing Services

And let's not forget that 50 is the new 40... :0(

I suppose we just need to eke out our fading intellects with whatever wisdom we have been able to scrape together over the years.
January 9, 2012 at 9:39 | Registered CommenterWill
I dont agree at all with this idea that life ends at 45. And more I think that it is one of the major problems of our societies.

I am 49 and I will have 50 February 14th. I never felt so clear in my head. Yes memory is some time a problem. I don't remember all detail, but did I before ? I have a lot of projects and things to live if god let's me live a little more. I remember my gran father he launched 2 companies he was only 75 !. I am also in many human associations. I meet people they are about 60 to 85/90 sometimes. You could not imagine how green they are. They are just incredible. I remember my uncle he was 75 when he met a woman who was 35. They married and they made a baby.

The real question is about health. If you have it great. If you haven't it well that is a problem.

You have to be very strong in your head.

For my opinion, You have the age of yours thought. You can be 20 and think like a old man or woman. You can be 90 and think like a 20 years old man or woman.

Still you have hope and dreams you stay alive. Still you struggle for life and live with hope and desire you are alive. Oldness becomes when you are not anymore interested by people or actuality.

I think what of the most important lesson I ever understood is what I leant with my English vicare. I was ten to 20. He lived at holmer vicarage at hereford. He was about 60 to over. He was very interested by people. For was I perceived he tried not to see the half empty bottle. But instead the Half full bottle.

Life is a tresor. People is a tresor too. Still you try to progress and love, still you try to care about yours positive thought and thow away bad thoughts, still you try to live and share with other then still you stay alive and young. But if you do not you die. Spiritualy or physically.

It is just as simple as that.

So no. As my gran father said, life begins at 45. You are more experienced. You are better and you understand yours mistakes. In fact at 40 and over your are at the beginning of your real life.
January 13, 2012 at 12:26 | Registered CommenterJupiter
Well said, Jupiter!
January 13, 2012 at 15:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
You had an English vicar in Hereford? I thought you were thoroughly French!
January 13, 2012 at 16:40 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I'm 44. I find it harder to learn facts, but then I never was very good at that. Most of the time, I learned patterns, summaries, and ways of looking at things On the other hand, I also learned early on how to format things to learn them if I really need to.

I really hate when authors take what could be a quick table, and describe it in words -- to make it easier! I need to recreate the table to see the patterns. Once I see the patterns, the rest is easy!

As a storyteller, I find it harder to memorize new stories, but I suspect that's due interest (after almost 50 stories and a few hundred performances, I'm not excited and terrified at the thought of telling) and life events (my daughter had a scary illness. She's fine now, but we have to rebuild routines and chores and sleep patterns. Roller-coaster!)

I'll look up that interval singing program. My technical for my last exam? Ugh.

Anyone have a similar program for scales? Unfortunately, the format changes. For the last one, chromatic was C-C#-D-D#--E-D#-D-C#-C. Major and most minors were CBCDCBAGFEDC. I don't have the book for the next one, but expect something similar.

January 13, 2012 at 18:47 | Registered CommenterCricket
"You had an English vicar in Hereford? I thought you were thoroughly French!"

Yes I a French and since the 14Th century ! But for your information I learnt English from 10 to 20 at Holmer Vicarage at Hereford near whales. I had for teacher an incredible person who was a vicar and whose name was John DALE. He died years ago and his wife Beryl who was so nice and clever like him, may be 3 years ago. They made me discover England and I never forgot It. I still love speaking with British people, its reminds me my youth when life was simple.
January 14, 2012 at 9:11 | Registered CommenterJupiter
I've seen research showing that up to 55 years of age people are able to compensate through experience and various strategies. After that it becomes impossible to keep up with where your brute brain power once was. In addition there are individual differences as to starting points. Starting with an IQ of 155 and then experiencing waning capability is different from someone with less IQ. Finally there's the EQ to take into consideration.
January 14, 2012 at 11:11 | Unregistered CommenterGadgetgy

I remain unconvinced by a lot of the research on this subject. My own opinion (not based on any research) is that a lot of the slowing of the brain in later life is due to the way the brain works - that over a period of 50 or 60 years it has laid down very strong pathways which tend to be followed all the time, increasingly involuntarily.

Growth in the brain occurs when new stuff is undertaken, and this is less likely when one is literally "in a rut". I notice in myself even at the age of 68 that when I am dealing with new stuff and actively engaging with it, my thinking suddenly becomes as clear as it was when I was 40 or 50 years younger. In fact in those circumstances I quite often forget that I'm _not_ 40 or 50 years younger and find myself talking to people very much younger than myself as an equal in age. This just happens naturally - it's not a pitiful attempt to recapture my lost youth!
January 14, 2012 at 18:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< Yes I a French and since the 14Th century ! >>

What happened in the 14th Century?
January 14, 2012 at 18:07 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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