Superagers intrigue scientists.
A superager is someone who is 80 or older who still has cognitive functions as good as a typical middle-ager. In addition to memory and cognition skills they might show on a test, superagers’ brains usually show less shrinkage compared to their age peers.
Brains do shrink with age. The average loss is 2.24% in brain volume per year. But superagers only lose about 1% a year. That partially explains why they maintain their mental faculties better than most.
So how do you keep a big brain and stay mentally sharp like superagers?
The superagers that scientists at Northwestern University have been studying did not set out to stay sharper longer than their neighbors. But it seems they do have a small group of habits in common that may play a role beyond fortunate genetics.
Northwestern scientists noticed that the superagers they studied kept taking on challenging mental tasks.
There’s a caveat here. A few years ago, news stories told us that we could do puzzles and crosswords to stay mentally alert. That turned out to be naïve and misleading advice. The cue is in the word “challenge.” As anyone who has done crossword for several years knows, they become easier over time. That’s why tasks such as learning a new language, taking a class on something you haven’t studied before, or learning a new instrument are especially good for keeping your brain running smoothly for longer.
Superagers also like a party—or at least stay in touch with plenty of friends and family. They have strong social networks. This is one of the habits that really does seem to ward off brain shrinkage. In autopsies, superagers showed four or five times as many von Economo neurons (VENs) than non-superager octogenarians.
VENs are also called spindle neurons, and scientists are paying more attention to them in the past few years. They are quite special—only a few animals have them. These include humans, great apes, elephants, and whales. Scientists think they may be responsible for faster reaction times and information processing in large brains. When they are damaged, they can lead to a variety of language and cognitive disorders. And when they remain abundant, evidently they help superagers stay sharp.
Superagers also tend to have active lives and to exercise regularly.
And the fourth habit they have in common could be called moderate indulgence. Though they exercised, most are not extreme athletes. And they were likely to have a bit of wine or other alcohol without going overboard.
Harvard Health has suggested a couple more traits that mark superagers. One is mindset—they simply do not feel their age is a deterrent. While a friend may say, “why study statistics or learn German at my age?” a superager will do it because it interests him or her. Age be damned.
Superagers also embrace the knack for being frustrated and staying on task. Think about it. No one learns to play the violin easily. We expect children to do it gradually with much practice. Superagers are willing to try, meet failure, then try again.
Maybe returning to that childhood pattern is good for making old age more rewarding.
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