Judi Dench impressed the audience with her acting and memorization of lines at 82 years old; Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mount Fuji at 99 years old; and JRR Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in his 60s. These seniors may not be clinically termed as ‘super-agers’, but they embodied it in essence.

Super-ager’ was termed by neurologist Marsel Mesulam at Northwestern University in Chicago for older adults aged, 60 to 80 years old, who have memory performance better than or similar to those 20 to 30 years younger.

It is once again a debate of nature vs nurture: are super-agers genetically blessed with thicker medial brains that seem to shrink in their non-super-ager peers? Or can super-aging be worked on, so that many can be part of these elite elders?

Super-agers also have been found to have up to five times more von Economo neurons – responsible for social processing and awareness – deep in their brains, which are more than the average young adult.
In studies such as the one by neuropsychologist David Loewenstein from University of Miami, brain autopsies of people aged 85 and above showed plaques and tangles – hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

This study, on the other hand, also revealed those same people being free of the disease while still alive, which gave hope that more lifestyle choices can control successful ageing.

The medial brain, involved in memory and other key functions (highlighted) in super-agers are thicker than that of their peers. Photo credit: Neuroscience News
The medial brain, involved in memory and other key functions (highlighted) in super-agers are thicker than that of their peers. Photo credit: Neuroscience News

Super-agers are social butterflies

In neuroscientist Emily Rogalski’s Super Agers study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, her 80-year-old or older participants came from various backgrounds – they either had higher education, high IQ, were smokers, teetotallers or none of those. However, they all seemed to be extroverts and had strong and wide social circles.

Rogalski commented, “there are brain benefits of having good friends.”

Lowenstein also explained it with science. “Epidemiological studies show that people with a lifetime of cognitively stimulating activities and social connections are much less at risk for cognitive decline as they age," he said.

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Super-agers stay busy

Work, in any form, improves cognitive functioning.

"We have known for a long time that people in the workforce are better than people out of work," said Laura Carstensen, Founding Director of the Stanford University Centre on Longevity.

However, work was not the only way to keep busy. Picking up a hobby and staying engaged with it for a couple of hours daily will also keep the wheels running smoothly.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University suggested a mental workout every day – diving into a topic or class of interest that is challenging up to a point of discomfort. The trick is to push past the momentary discomfort, staying on the course and coming out with growth.

Super-agers exercise, eat and sleep well

Exercising is still the best way to maintain longevity.
Exercising is still the best way to maintain longevity.

Exercise cannot be recommended enough. Daily exercise of 15 minutes per day goes a long way with longevity. The benefits can be reaped for exercise up to 45 minutes per day – beyond that had no significant advantage. As much as the mind needs a workout, so does the body and it benefits from pushing past the momentary discomfort – within personal limits, as Barrett noted.

Sleep works as downtime for the brain to clean up waste – plagues related to dementia included – so sufficient sleep is definitely an order of the night.

A Mediterranean diet rich in healthy fats – such as olive oil, fish and vegetables – was also noted to contribute to better memory and less cognitive decline. In addition, Dr Claudia Kawas, professor of neurology and author of The 90+ Study, noted that modest caffeine intake is also associated with longevity.

“The sweet spot for caffeine was 200-400 milligrams a day,” said Kawas, “which, depending on whether you’re a Starbucks fan or an old-fashioned drinker, is about two cups of coffee probably.”

The study also noted that overweight seniors at 70 years old tend to live longer, which is counterintuitive but have been found even in earlier research. While still trying to understand this, Kawas assured that, “it’s not bad to be skinny when you’re young, but it’s very bad to be skinny when you’re old.”

Kawas’ study also found that a couple of glasses of wine or beer per day, was also a factor in ageing well. Abstainers live relatively shorter lives in contrast. “I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking is associated with longevity,” said Kawas.

The successful habits of super-agers are still being researched. However, findings thus far note that genes, as well as lifestyle choices, go a long way in longevity. MIMS

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