How much does reaction time declines with age?

A study that says your reaction time peak at age 24 provoked quite some controversy, now those of us who are getting closer to our 30’s can start panicking, or not..maybe it is true that most people’s reflexes decline with age, but let’s see how severe it is and how can we counter it.


How much does reaction time declines with age?

Studies have shown that after peaking at 24 years old, reaction time declines between 4 and 10 milliseconds per year, depending on the type of activity measured, where constant and fatiguing decision making (such as in a RTS game) amounts for 10 milliseconds per year decline, and isolated tests amounts for 4 millisecond per year decline. This means a person who is 34 years old is between 40 and 100 milliseconds slower than his/her 24 years old self. Reaction times can be improved by good sleeping, eating and exercising.



The Reaction times study

The study consists of a population of 3,305 subjects ages 16 to 44, it was published by researchers Thompson, Blair, Chen and Henrey from Simon Fraser University. The research found that reaction to in-game visual stimuli starts to decline at age 24, the drop is slow, but nonetheless steady. 

Researchers observed gamers reaction times while playing the famous Starcraft 2 -a great game-, and analyzed their speed when making game decisions to win their matches. The study also found that older players tend to make up for their slow reaction time by being more efficient and having strategies less demanding to execute.


How slower are we getting after 24?

The research journal says that the effect of age is substantial. For example, a typical Bronze player at the age of 39, equal in all other aspects to a 24 year old adversary, can be expected to be around 150 millisecond slower.


If we divide the previous number by age difference: 150/15, we obtain a 10 ms decline in reaction time per year. This is, of course, my calculation, not the study’s and a very not formal one, maybe the decline is not linear, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume 10 ms decline per year.


This decline (150 ms) represents 15% of the speed gained due to hard work by a high ranking player vs a low ranking player,  the researchers argue that the effects of age, even in what most consider young adulthood, offsets a sizeable proportion of what has taken older players hundred or even thousand of hours to achieve. This is good news for older players, as older masters players have way faster reactions than young lower ranked players, meaning good habits and the desire to get good trumps age.


As you can see in the graph above (taken from the study), older diamond players (purple line) have reaction times around 600 ms, while bronze players at peak age have reaction times of around 1000 ms.

Can we trust the study?

I did read the whole study and I can say the researchers were very competent in their work, not only the statistical analysis is consistent, but also the population number (3,305) is significant and more so the amount of hours tested. In the past there were studies that tried achieving similar feats to this one, but the data was not so easily (Starcraft 2) available and therefore there was not enough of it, for example, the players averaged more than 500 total hours of gameplay, which would have been unthinkable for a game research in the past.


Furthermore, the data includes rigorous analysis about the actions performed by the player, like worker unit creation, vertical and horizontal movement, amount of unique hotkeys used , complex ability per second and so on.


Arguments can be made to refute the study, “it’s correlation not causation” could be valid, maybe players 24 and older were tired with adulthood obligations, they were just relaxing by playing a game of Starcraft. You could think that, but the journal explains pretty extensively on why this is not the case, higher ranked players aged 24+ showed decline too. Other studies seem to confirm this one as we are going to see now.


Other studies about age and reaction time

A study conducted in the University of Edinburgh tested more than 500 subjects aged 16, 36 and 56 on simple and choice reaction time. Participants were tested again eight years later. Results were the same as in the first study in this article. Reaction times became slower and more variable with age.


When male subjects aged 16 were measured for Choice reaction time, they averaged 577.8 millisecond, when measured again eight years later at the age of 24, they averaged 546 ms, accounting for an improvement of 31 millisecond and peaking at 24. Other group of participants were measured at ages 36 and 44, they averaged 618.9 and 624.5 eight years later. Now the difference between a 24 years old and 44 years old adds up to 78.5 milliseconds. This number divided by age difference (78.5/20) gives us 3.925 millisecond, which means we lose almost 4 ms of reaction time speed every year. This number is way less dramatic than the 10 ms decline in the previous study, but keep in mind, in the previous research participants were constantly making reaction time choices, thus hinting at fatigue when people get older. Not only reaction time decays, but ‘decision making and reacting stamina’ too.


Why does reaction time decrease with age?

As we age physical changes in our nervous systems occur, such as loss of transmission speed and loss of cell count in the parts of the brain in charge of motor control. These effects can be countered with good sleeping, exercising and eating habits. 


What is the fastest human reaction time?

Fastest conscious human reactions are around 150 milliseconds, this is what we will find in peak performance proffessional athletes at ages around 24. For perspective, average (median) reaction times are around 215 milliseconds. Both exceptional (150 ms) and average (215 ms) are much slower ( once decision is added to the reaction time test



What do professional gamers think about reaction time decline with age?

An interview conducted by Abhimanyu Ghoshal here says the following: Marco ‘Snappi’ Pfeiffer, a Danish Counter Strike Global Offensive player aged 26. Says the following about reflexes and player success in game: 

Snappi CS:GO

It’s been over-exaggerated. One of the best teams in the world (Virtus Pro, from Russia and Poland) have three players who are aged between 28 and 30.


He also believes that professional players now can continue playing as they age: 

Back when Counter-Strike 1.6 was popular (it was released in 2003), you could barely make $3,000 – $4,000 a month, which is tight in Scandinavian countries. So a lot of players who wanted to start a family, earn a better living or continue their education were forced to retire at an early age. Now that earnings have increased, CS is a more viable career choice and the dominance of Virtus Pro, with its older players, is proof of that (the team’s 30-year-old in-game leader Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas became a father in 2017).


His teammate, 31 years old Andreas ‘MODDII’ Fridh said the following about slowing reflexes: 

"I haven’t felt that at any point during my career thus far. I’ve been playing professionally for more than eight years and for the most part, my aim hasn’t failed me. I want to play for as long as possible, maybe until my abilities decline. But not immediately", 


In other interview League of Legends professional player Paul ‘sOAZ’ Boyer (age 26) says “I’ll keep playing until Doublelift retires. I’d like to be the last man standing”. Doublelift is 26 and consistently dominates the NA LCS tournament every year.


It seems reaction time for professional players follow the same rule as for everyone, it peaks at 24 and then slowly declines. Does it mean older professional players are worse than young ones? I think not necessarily, veterans tend to compensate with experience and better strategy, also the decline is really slow and there are things much more preoccupying than reaction times, for example, player burnout, which is when professional players get tired of the game, some players have felt this and retired for a season to come back later, stronger than ever. 


¿How can I stop reaction time decline?


You can stop it, follow this advice: 



Sleep well:

A study from The American Sleep Disorders Association and Sleep Research Society showed that sleep deprivation can slow down as much as 80 milliseconds the reaction time of a person.



Do plenty exercise:


Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and improves overall health, weight training is particularly good for this as it has been published in The American Geriatrics Society that lifting weights twice a week can have an impact on slowing the aging process of the brain as we get older. Oxygen in the brain is important.



Eat well:

nutritious food

Eat more fruits, cut fried foods. Try blueberries, this fruit contains anthocyanins which helps you sleep and improve your brain function. If you are like me and frequently indulge in what you’d call not healthy food, then all you need is to add fruits and vegetables to your diet while still eating whatever you want for the rest of it.



Keep your brain active: Read books, play videogames, try not drinking too much alcohol and relax as much as possible..


Last thoughts about reaction time decline

Reaction time drop with age after 24 years old is statistically true, this doesn’t mean it has to be true for you, decline as we get older applies to a lot of areas, for example, we all know that we lose muscle mass with age, nonetheless you can find instagram profiles of 60+ years old way more muscular than 20 years old (and some say they are more muscular than themselves when they were younger), the same applies with reaction time. I'd put my money on that somewhere there is an old person with reaction times way faster than most youngsters, he/she might be playing games online and styling on us, we don't know. It’s on us to take good care of ourselves in order to keep sharp, by either following the advice given above or generally maintaining a healthy lifestyle.