A recent story in the New York Times reported about researchers who studied older brains and found that mental faculties improve with age.

The story says, “according to a new paper in the journal Psychological Science, elements of social judgment and short-term memory, important pieces of the cognitive puzzle, may peak later in life.

The postdoctoral fellows Joshua Hartshorne of M.I.T. and Laura Germine of Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed a huge trove of scores on cognitive tests taken by people of all ages.

The researchers found that the broad split in age-related cognition — fluid in the young, crystallized in the old — masked several important nuances.

“This dichotomy between early peaks and later peaks is way too coarse,” Hartshorne told the New York Times. “There are a lot more patterns going on, and we need to take those into account to fully understand the effects of age on cognition.”

The new paper is hardly the first challenge to the scientific literature on age-related decline, and it won’t be the last. A year ago, German scientists argued that cognitive “deficits” in aging were caused largely by the accumulation of knowledge— that is, the brain slows down because it has to search a larger mental library of facts. That idea has stirred some debate among scientists.

Experts said the new analysis raised a different question: Are there distinct, independent elements of memory and cognition that peak at varying times of life?

“I think they have more work to do to demonstrate that that’s the case,” said Denise Park, a professor of behavior and brain science at the University of Texas at Dallas. “But this is a provocative paper, and it’s going to have an impact on the field.”

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