Are you a superager? Unless you’re over 80, you’ll have to wait to find out. Meanwhile, science is uncovering some intriguing clues.
While it might bring to mind images of sprightly seniors in brightly colored capes valiantly battling Father Time, “superager” is a real term scientists are now applying to a select group of the elderly. We’ve long known that some people simply age better than others; some people may look far younger than their years, others may be as active as much younger people, and still others have the mental acuity of a person thirty years their junior. It’s this last group that science has designated “superagers” and scientists want to know just what’s going on in their brains to make them so special.
What makes superagers so super?
To be considered a “superager,” a person must be over the age of 80—but have the memory of a 55-year old. That’s a tiny fraction of the population. We may get wiser as we get older, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, but our memories tend to degrade…unless we’re superagers. Our brains also tend to shrink as we age, and a new study from Northwestern University in Chicago suggests that this might be the key to the superager code. They found that superagers have brains that resist normal age-related shrinkage.
For the study, they gave memory tests to more than a thousand seniors who believed they had exceptional memories. Of this thousand-plus, only 62 actually performed well enough to qualify. (For example: When read a list of 15 words, the average 55-year old can still recall about nine of them 15 minutes later. The average 80-year-old, on the other hand, can only remember about 5.)
The study team looked at all facets of these “superagers’” lives, from what they ate to how much they exercised. They didn’t find any common factors. Their lifestyles were all over the board—some were focused on their health, but some drank and some were long-term smokers. No did their intelligence or social class seem to make a difference—not all of them had a high IQ, and not all were middle- or upper-class.
On the surface, they just didn’t seem to have much in common. And yet, every single one of them had the memory of a person far younger.
Behold: the incredible shrink-resistant brain
So the researchers did brain scans to look at what was going on. Past studies had shown that an area called the cingulate cortex—a brain region involved in paying attention—was thicker in superagers than in other people, which was an unusual finding. Normally, our brains start to shrink once we hit middle age (around age 40) and shrink by about five percent each decade. And once you hit 70, the rate of shrinkage gets even faster.
That wasn’t going on in the cingulate cortex of superagers. And the new scans showed that it wasn’t happening in the rest of their brains either. Using MRI, they compared the brains of superagers with those of average people over 18 months. The average person experienced about 2% shrinkage during that time. The superagers, on the other hand, had less than half that much shrinkage—only .8 percent. Scientists say this finding is downright shocking.
The finding also supports what superagers say about themselves: there was nothing special about them till they hit middle age. They didn’t have super memories when they were young. They didn’t do better in school, they weren’t super successful or super anything else. They were just average people. Whatever causes the “superaging” effect, it doesn’t seem to kick in till middle age.
Is it just a case of “good genes”?
And scientists want to know just what that is. The Northwestern University team is currently studying the DNA of these superagers. They’re looking for a genetic component that might play a role in brain shrinkage and memory.
Meanwhile, the one thing the entire group seems to have in common is this: They’re positive, enthusiastic, and engaged. They’re interested in the people and the world around them. Researchers say one man was so thrilled to be called a superager that he now wears a “superager” cape a friend made for him. Another is looking for a new spouse—at age 80+. He thinks another superager might fit the bill.
This too fits with what we know about the brain and memory. More and more research is linking brain inflammation to memory problems including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Stress is increasingly linked to inflammation. And a negative outlook is a sure recipe for stress.
On the other hand, there are stacks of studies showing that having a positive outlook and staying engaged with your surroundings has real physical effects. Positivity reduces stress and the damaging stress hormones associated with it. It reduces inflammation system-wide—including in the brain. Staying involved with family and community and having a wide social circle improves cognitive ability. And one of the best ways to keep your memory sharp, of course, is to continually learn new things.
You won’t know if you’re a superager till you hit 80. But to increase your odds here’s what you can do:
- Learn something new every day.
- Cultivate a wide variety of acquaintances—different typed of people provide a variety of stimulation and engage your brain in different ways.
- Be involved in your community. Keep abreast of what’s going on. Join a church group, volunteer at a food pantry—whatever feels right for you. But get involved.
- Read. Read often and read widely. Read something that makes you think. Read something that makes you use your imagination. The best way to keep your brain sharp is to use it.
- Do something different every day—don’t fall prey to routine. Get out of bed on the other side. Take a different direction when you go for a walk. Cook something new for dinner. Variety keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak.
Whether you’re destined to be a superager or not, all these tips will help improve your memory and your ability to focus. But the most important thing may be this: stay positive. Look on the bright side—because there’s always a bright side even when things are dark.
And if you’re already a superager? Keep up whatever you’ve been doing and let the world see your superager cape.