Here at the Blog, we’ve heard the term “SuperAgers” before. It turns out the notion of calling some seniors “SuperAgers” goes back at least a decade and a half, and it refers (as we’ll see below) to men and women in their eighties and beyond whose memory seems not to have diminished since they were 50 or younger. Are these savvy seniors simply the ones who lucked out in the genetic sweepstakes? Or are there lessons from the SuperAgers that any of us can apply to help us not only live longer but also age well?
For some answers we’re turning to this recent article from the Washington Post, written by reporter Richard Sima. Few of these “lessons learned” about SuperAgers will come as a surprise, but it does add to a body of research showing how common-sense decisions we make today can pay cognitive dividends in the future. Who knows? Maybe you can one day join the ranks of the SuperAgers. Let’s take a look.
Showing Us What’s Possible as We Age
“These are like the Betty Whites of the world,” Emily Rogalski says. Rogalski should know: she’s a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease. She was also part of the research team that came up with the term “SuperAgers” 15 years ago.
What’s a SuperAger? It’s someone older than 80 whose memory is as good—or better – as it was when they were 20 to 30 years younger. Sounds like a group worth joining.
In his Washington Post report, Sima writes, “What researchers are learning from SuperAgers and about dementia prevention could allow us to discover new protective factors in lifestyle, genetics and resilience for common changes that arise with aging.”
Rogalski adds, “It’s invigorating to know that there are good trajectories of aging. It’s possible to live long and live well.”
What Those “Good Trajectories of Aging” May Include
Rogalski says that there are three major trajectories of aging’s effect on our cognition: the pathologic, the normal, and the SuperAger. Pathologic is the term for cognition that deteriorates faster than expected, as in the case of dementia.
Sima writes, “A 2023 report from the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 1 in 3 Americans older than 85 have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. More hopefully, research has uncovered many of the different risk factors that can be mitigated with lifestyle changes. A 2020 report from Lancet estimates that about 40 percent of dementias may be preventable.”
The normal or average trajectory is usually that memory and cognitive abilities can begin to decline around your 30s and 40s. Rogalski adds that by the time most people are 80, memory tests show that they remember about half as much as they could when they were 50. “Despite being less sharp, older people following this trajectory are still able to function — and thrive — in everyday life,” she says. “There is, however, a lot of individual variability.”
The Third Trajectory: the SuperAgers
That variability is what led researchers to discover the third trajectory, the SuperAgers, who are as mentally acute past their 80s as others are in their 50s and 60s. “It is not known what percent of the general population qualifies as SuperAgers, but they appear to be rare,” Rogalski says. “Even when researchers tried to screen only participants who believed they had good memory, less than 10 percent met the definition.”
In order to crack the code of what makes SuperAgers different, researchers followed those enrolled, examined their health, imaged their brains, recorded their life histories, and asked them to donate their brains to science after death.
“The word I would use to describe this group is resilient,” Rogalski says. “Many SuperAgers endured hardship, including extreme poverty, losing family at an early age or surviving Holocaust concentration camps.”
SuperAgers also seem to be very community-focused, with strong positive social relationships that require a degree of adaptability to interact with those in different age groups.
“One SuperAger lives with his daughter and grandchildren, who do not know much about Frank Sinatra or Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Rogalski says. “Instead, the SuperAger asks his grandchildren about their interests: Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper. He laughs at this and finds joy in trying to keep up with what his grandkids are interested in instead of seeing that as too far of a reach or a burden. And I think that that’s a really lovely outlook.”
SuperAgers Have Particularly Healthy Brains
In normal circumstances, the brain typically shrinks with age. This is especially true in the cortex, the more evolutionarily recent part of the brain. But this isn’t what happens with SuperAgers; their brains appear more youthful in areas associated with memory and executive abilities.
In some fairly deep technical language, Sima explains some basics of brain physiology. We’ve paraphrased a bit for clarity but encourage you to see the original article for details.
“For example,” he writes, in the “frontal brain region important for many cognitive functions, including attention and memory, SuperAgers had a thicker cortical layer compared with cognitively normal 80-plus-year-olds and even 50-year-olds. SuperAgers also had larger, healthier neurons in…another brain area critical for memory, compared with both their older and 20-to-30-years-younger counterparts.”
Simultaneously, SuperAger brains appear to have more protection against the biological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, “with less amyloid beta plaques, a cellular waste product, and neurofibrillary tangles,” Sima writes.
Adopting the Lifestyles of the SuperAgers
While becoming a SuperAger probably relies on genetics than any other single factor, there are many lifestyle adjustments that we can cultivate for better brain health. “Stop being a dementia worrier, start being a prevention warrior,” says neuropsychiatrist and author Mitchell Clionsky. “The active approach to this is what’s going to make the difference.”
“And it is never too late to address the risk factors we can change,” Emily Clionsky (Mitchell’s wife and co-author) adds. The average age of her patients who saw benefits was the mid-70s. “My oldest patient was over 100,” she says.
Sima provides the following factors for a healthier brain, which we have included word-for-word from his article:
- Eat like a centenarian by incorporating fiber-rich foods and nuts into your diet.
- Exercise your body. Most people know the importance of getting up and moving, yet don’t always follow through. “I tell them to examine their ‘but,’” Mitchell Clionsky says. “Figure out what is getting in the way of exercising and ask “how do we break it down into something you will do.’”
- Exercise your brain. The brain loves a challenge, so do activities that engage your noggin.
- Stay connected. Social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for dementia, while social contact is protective.
- Foster resilience. When something bad occurs, try to embrace the challenge. “What in this can be a learning moment? What in this can be a turning point?” Rogalski says.
Sima concludes his article with this wonderfully positive quote from Rogalski: “I think there’s the possibility to set new expectations in aging and to revalue rather than devalue older adults.” Sounds encouraging. Here’s to the SuperAgers pointing the way.
Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!
We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public. As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.
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(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)