A pair of superagers.

Superagers Unlock Decades Younger Cognitive Health

Kimberley Lehman

Are you curious about the secrets to aging gracefully? Do you want to know how to live a long and healthy life? Researchers have been studying a unique group of individuals known as “superagers” – people in their 80s and 90s who are living without major physical or memory issues.

These super agers hold the key to unlocking the secrets of longevity. By understanding their healthy habits, we can all learn how to enhance our own health and well-being as we age. With life expectancy on the rise, it’s crucial to focus on increasing our health span, the amount of time we spend in good health.

A pair of superagers hike in the mountains.

 

While our genes play a role in determining our longevity, they only account for about 20%-30% of the equation.  By adopting healthy lifestyle habits, we can significantly improve how well we age and enjoy a longer, more fulfilling life.

Understanding why some superagers sidestep dementia promises invaluable insights into maintaining brains against time’s toll. What sets their cognition apart? Can we apply lifestyle factors protecting them neurologically?

At Northwestern University, Dr. Emily Rogalski leads an illuminating research program contrasting superagers, regular agers, and Alzheimer’s patients. Her team’s discoveries counter aging stereotypes, reveal optimism and provide an emerging playbook for sustaining vigorous intellect through later decades.

Let’s take a look at some of her remarkable findings.

The Phenomenon of Superagers

Relative to average adults their age, Rogalski categorizes elderly super agers as having:

  • Memories and attention at least as sharp as those 30 years younger
  • Superior performance on cognitive exams like memory tests
  • No diagnosed neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s

Finding such individuals involves comprehensive neurological screening to confirm high function versus underlying pathology. Qualifying superagers then undergo comparative assessments against normal older subjects, checking memory, focus, processing speed, attention span, and more.

Results are stark — 80-year-old superager minds often match or outpace 50-and 60-year-olds. Some even relearn extinct languages! Their cognition remains stuck in time despite most peers sliding. Are they just genetically gifted? Or do certain behaviors preserve skills?

Neural Correlates: How Superagers’ Brains Differ

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, Rogalski discovered superager brains frequently share distinguishing features, including:

  • Thicker Cortexes – The brain’s outer layer controlling high-level tasks like memory thickens in regions linked to attention and emotional function. This insulation protects the inner circuitry.
  • Less Shrinkage or Damage – Superagers don’t show heavy generalized atrophy, eroding most older minds. Critical areas involved in memory avoid the accumulation of plaques and tangles degrading cells.
  • Unique Cell Concentrations – Unusually high densities of large von Economo neurons appear in parts of the anterior cingulate and insular cortex, involved in social awareness and self-control.

Superagers’ brains resist wear and tear, affecting most people entering later decades. But what accounts for this preservation? Do activities or choices interact with genetics, sustaining cognitive fitness despite chronology?

Lifestyle Factors Enabling Heightened Mental Acuity

Female superager engaged in physical exercise in the park with others.

Seeking lifestyle correlations to quantify superagers’ sharpness, Rogalski finds they commonly:

  • Follow nutritious diets high in vegetables, fish, and complex carbs
  • Engage in regular strenuous physical and social activity
  • Continuously learn novel skills through middle and later years
  • Play immersive strategy games requiring planning, like chess
  • Read books voraciously on diverse topics to stay mentally stimulated
  • Complete intellectually demanding translation and writing projects
  • Occupy leadership career roles requiring quick critical thinking

Conversely, Rogalski notes standard agers, specifically Alzheimer’s patients, tend to become more passive and isolated as they age. Limited cognitive challenges coupled with poorer cardiovascular health from less exercise may accelerate mental decline.

She posits that superagers’ enrichment disciplines and social engagement continually exercise plasticity mechanisms, keeping brains robust. This builds “cognitive reserves” of densely interconnected neurons to better resist aging pressures.

The Influence of Genetics on Aging

“Some individuals are genetically predisposed to age later, regardless of their diet or lifestyle.”

Researchers continue to investigate the specific mechanisms behind these protective genes and how they affect the aging process. By understanding the genetic factors that contribute to healthier aging, scientists hope to develop targeted interventions that can enhance longevity for everyone, not just individuals with these protective genes.

Longevity and genetics researchers observe some superagers may benefit from protective genes helping preserve minds and extend health spans independent of lifestyle.

For example:

APOE2 gene – Reduces heart disease and Alzheimer’s risk by lowering bad cholesterol and amyloid buildup

FOXO3 gene – Improves stress resilience while reducing inflammation and cell aging

KLOTHO gene – Makes vital protein that controls aging, cognition, and muscle quality

Most aging adults have neutral or adverse gene variants. Today’s record life expectancy demands functional quality between ages 85-100, beyond what typical inherited resilience guarantees. So, Rogalski emphasizes incorporating new, healthy daily habits as priorities more than relying on genetic luck. Simple lifestyle choices can provide profound improvements in cognitive health.

It’s important to note that genetics alone do not determine how well we age. While some individuals may have a genetic advantage, lifestyle choices play a pivotal role in maintaining optimal health and well-being as we age.

Habits of Blue Zones – A Key to Superagers

“Blue Zones are regions where people live longer, healthier lives.”

Blue Zones are remarkable regions around the globe where people live longer, healthier lives. By studying these areas, researchers have reinforced Rogalski’s findings and identified common lifestyle choices that contribute to the exceptional longevity and overall well-being of the individuals living there.

These habits include:

  • Plant-Based Diet: A majority of the people in Blue Zones consume a plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. This dietary pattern provides essential nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber, promoting better health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
  • Natural Movement: The individuals in Blue Zones engage in regular physical activity through daily tasks such as walking, gardening, and manual labor. They prioritize natural movement instead of leading sedentary lifestyles, reaping the benefits of improved cardiovascular health, strength, and flexibility.
  • Sense of Purpose: Having a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life is a common characteristic among the people in Blue Zones. They have a clear reason to wake up every day and remain actively engaged in their communities, work, or personal pursuits, which contributes to their overall well-being and longevity.
  • Faith-Based Community: Many individuals in Blue Zones belong to tight-knit faith-based communities. These social connections provide support, companionship, and a sense of belonging, which are essential for emotional well-being and longevity.

Additionally, daily naps or finding ways to “downshift” – taking breaks to relax and de-stress – are practices observed across these regions. These habits are believed to have a significant impact on the health and longevity of individuals in Blue Zones.

By incorporating the practices of Blue Zone regions into your own life, you can enhance your chances of living a longer, healthier life. Whether it’s adopting a plant-based diet, incorporating natural movement into your daily routine, finding your sense of purpose, or connecting with a faith-based community, these lifestyle choices can contribute to healthy aging and overall well-being.

The Benefits of Exercise for Cognitive Brain Health

Exercise is not only beneficial for your physical health but also plays a significant role in keeping your mind sharp. Numerous studies have suggested a strong link between exercise and cognitive health, highlighting its potential to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s. Regular physical activity has been associated with better brain volumes and improved overall cognitive function.

One simple yet effective form of exercise is walking, which not only improves general health but also supports cognitive function. Research has shown that walking regularly can boost gray matter in the brain, leading to enhanced cognitive abilities. Moreover, engaging in physical activity with others, such as walking in a group or participating in social exercise programs, can have additional benefits for brain health. Socializing while exercising can provide mental stimulation and improve mood, further contributing to cognitive well-being.

The Accessibility and Importance of Exercise

Older man doing pushups who realizes regular exercise is important for superagers.

One of the greatest advantages of exercise is its accessibility to people of all ages and abilities. You don’t need expensive equipment or gym memberships to reap the benefits of physical activity. Engaging in activities such as walking, swimming, dancing, or even gardening can have a positive impact on your cognitive health.

By incorporating regular exercise into your lifestyle, you can improve brain health, enhance cognitive function, and potentially reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline. So, lace up your sneakers, gather a group of friends for a brisk walk, and let exercise be your ally in maintaining a sharp mind as you age.

Social and Behavioral Factors of People in their 80s

Social and behavioral factors play a crucial role in promoting healthy longevity. Research has shown that individuals who maintain social connections and engage in positive behaviors tend to live longer and have better overall well-being.

Loneliness and isolation have been found to have negative effects on both physical and mental health, leading to shorter lives and poorer overall health. On the other hand, having a strong social support network and engaging in regular social activities can contribute to a longer, healthier life.

Psychological factors also play a significant role in healthy longevity. Maintaining a positive mindset and managing stress levels can have a profound effect on overall well-being. Stress has been linked to a variety of health issues, including heart disease, cognitive decline, and mental health disorders.

“Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical health. Take time to practice self-care, engage in activities that bring you joy, and seek support when needed.”

By prioritizing self-care and finding healthy ways to cope with stress, individuals can improve their mental health and enhance their overall quality of life into the 80s and beyond.

Crafting a Pathway to Healthy Aging

Recognizing the pivotal role of social and behavioral factors is essential in charting a course for healthy aging. Cultivating strong social bonds, engaging in enriching activities, and focusing on mental health are fundamental steps towards extending both the quality and length of our lives.

Incorporating these elements into our daily practices can significantly enhance our overall health and increase the likelihood of aging with grace and vitality.

The secret to a longer, healthier life doesn’t follow a uniform blueprint; it’s shaped by integrating specific lifestyle habits that are known to bolster longevity. Embracing the principles observed in Blue Zones, like a plant-based diet and consistent natural movement, has been proven to significantly contribute to the well-being of its inhabitants.

Moreover, regular physical activity stands out as a crucial element. Exercise not only fortifies physical health but is also instrumental in maintaining cognitive sharpness. Integrating consistent exercise into our daily routine supports our overall health, both mentally and physically.

Beyond physical wellness, the importance of social and behavioral aspects in the aging process cannot be overstated. Fostering connections, finding purpose, and keeping the mind active are integral to achieving a long and fulfilling life. By nurturing these facets, we position ourselves to thrive in our later years.

While genetic factors do influence longevity, the impact of lifestyle choices on the aging process is profound. Embracing these healthy aging strategies can lead to a more satisfying, extended life. It’s important to remember that it’s never too late to start focusing on your health and well-being, paving the way for a rewarding journey into the golden years.

Superagers enjoy a dance on the beach.

 

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