- New findings reveal how these “SuperAgers” keep their minds sharp.
- SuperAgers are people over the age of 80 who have cognitive abilities comparable to or better than people in their 50s and 60s.
- Experts explain how you can also strive to be a “SuperAger”.
Do everything you can for better brain health now can make a big difference as we age. Now, new research shows how a certain group of individuals became “SuperAgers” and the steps you can take to become one too.
A study published in The Lancet Health Longevity journal examined what SuperAgers had in common and what they did differently from their less mentally sharp peers. The study followed 64 SuperAgers and 55 cognitively normal elderly people who were part of Project Vallecas, a long-term research project on Alzheimer’s to Madrid.
SuperAgers had higher gray matter volume throughout their brains. Gray matter in the brain is the regions where neurons primarily reside, and these are the areas that will atrophy in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, explains Christian Camargo, MD, assistant professor of cognitive and memory impairment neurology at the University of Miami Health System. “Having more gray matter suggests that these individuals are somehow able to maintain these vital brain regions.”
With more gray matter volume, the SuperAgers scored higher on tests of agility, balance and mobility than typical older adults, even though the physical activity levels of the two groups were the same. The researchers determined that while SuperAgers reported similar activity levels to typical mature adults, it’s possible that they were doing more intensive physical exercise that made their bodies work harder.
Yet the question was how are these SuperAgers able to maintain vital regions of the brain? After a series of tests, the SuperAgers scored lower than typical older adults in depression and anxiety levels. Studies have shown that depression and social isolation is a key risk factor for the development of dementia.
SuperAgers also told researchers that they had been more active in their 40s, that they were satisfied with the amount of sleep they got (research showed that poor sleep may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease), and were independent in their daily lives.
So what is a SuperAger?
As far as this study is concerned, SuperAgers are people over the age of 80 who have comparable or better cognitive abilities than people in their 50s and 60s, says Patrick Porter, Ph.D., neuroscientist and founder of BrainTap. “Only about 10% of those who apply for such studies are eligible.”
SuperAgers are characterized by exceptional episodic memory — the ability to recall everyday events and personal experiences — and at least average performance on other cognitive tests, Porter says. “These individuals tend to remain intellectually active, maintain a positive outlook, and engage in regular physical activity often.”
Keep in mind that this study noted that SuperAgers had no difference in IQ compared to non-SuperAgers, which was somewhat surprising – and that SuperAgers had a similar percentage of ApoE4+ individuals (the most common genetic association with Alzheimer’s risk) to non-SuperAgers, which was also somewhat surprising, notes Dale Bredesen, MDneuroscientist and specialist in neurodegenerative diseases.
What does it mean to have more gray matter volume in the brain?
The human brain is made up of both gray and white matter, Porter explains. “Gray matter, which is more densely packed with neural cell bodies, is primarily responsible for processing information and controlling perception, emotions, decision-making, and self-control,” Porter explains. Having a higher volume of gray matter, especially in certain areas of the brain, is associated with higher cognitive abilities, he notes.
In the context of SuperAgers, this study found that these individuals had greater gray matter volume than typical older adults in areas related to cognitive functioning, spatial memory (the ability to remember different locations as well as spatial relationships between objects) and global memory, suggesting this may be a key factor in their preserved cognitive abilities, Porter says.
How do SuperAgers maintain their brain health longer than others?
The mechanisms that help some people preserve their cognitive abilities and brain health well into their old age are a complicated mix of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors, and aren’t fully understood, Porter says. Nevertheless, certain recurring patterns and behaviors are seen in SuperAgers that set them apart from other groups.
The study highlights that there appear to be both modifiable and genetic factors that play a role in SuperAger status, Dr. Camargo says. “For example, these people tended to have higher physical activity in midlife, better sleep satisfaction, and lower depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Camargo. And, the fact that SuperAgers perform well regardless of the presence of genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease suggests there are inherent protective factors that need to be explored further, Dr. Camargo notes.
The bottom line
The association of healthy lifestyle choices (such as physical activity and adequate sleep) with healthy agingespecially when started earlier in life, suggests that it’s never too early to start making better decisions about our health, says Dr. Camargo.
Although not everyone will develop dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other neurodegenerative diseases, everyone will age, and this study suggests that some people will age better than others, notes Dr. Camargo. “Therefore, anything associated with building cognitive resilience, such as promoting healthy cognitive aging through lifestyle modification, should be carefully considered, regardless of an individual’s baseline dementia risk,” he explains.
It’s important to remember that we’re often told (sometimes by our doctors) that aging means you can expect to experience cognitive decline, but this study shows that’s not necessarily the case, says Dr. Bredesen. “A lot of people stay very sharp well into their 80s and beyond.”
Magdalene, Preventionassociate editor of , has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD and her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience — and she helps strategize for success across Preventionsocial media platforms.