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What happens to your intelligence as you age?

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What happens to your intelligence as you age? A woman wonders on a yellow background.

The table below shows what happens to people’s cognitive ability as they get older (Schaie, 1994).

As you can see, your ability with words tends to hold up very well.  Great news if you are a poet, author, public speaker, or any other form of communicator.  You don’t get a real dropoff until you are well into your eighties. Interestingly, you don’t hit your peak in your communication skills until you are into your forties.  This is because language is a “crystalline” skill.  Experience helps us to accumulate words, phrases and ways of explaining things.

Numerical ability tends to decline quite consistently throughout life.  You will never be quite as good as you were in your early years.  Of course, technology helps us to do most of our calculations, but high numerical ability is helpful for interpreting data – finances, performance figures, etc.  The higher our numerical reasoning, the better we are at understanding exactly what the numbers are telling us.

As in physical activities, young is better when it comes to the speed of picking new things up.  It starts high and declines over the course of life.  Scarily so, perhaps.

Taken as a whole it is a good thing that cognitive abilities remain comparatively steady in the course of a person’s working life, because they have been found consistently to be one of the best predictors of job performance ever discovered.  To find out how to assess them in prospective hires click here.


Schaie, K.W., The course of adult intellectual development. American Psychologist, 49, 303-313.

Andrew Marty

Managing Director at SACS Consulting

Andrew is a qualified psychologist who has over 25 years of human resource management consulting experience, including extensive senior executive search and selection experience.

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