Would you like to live a very long life? Probably only if you can stay mentally sharp the whole way. And that might be possible. Scientists are studying people known as super agers to try to unlock the secrets to a younger brain.
Though the term ‘super agers’ sounds like a marketing gimmick (sometimes it’s even styled as SuperAgers), it’s simply how researchers refer to people in their 80s or older who have cognitive health similar to that of people 20 to 30 years younger.
The brains of super agers offer some clues about how these people stay sharp while so many of their age cohort suffer various forms of cognitive decline.
A Robust Entorhinal Cortex
The entorhinal cortex is a key hub in the brain network involved in memory, time perception and navigation. If you’ve ever had a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you don’t need to be told that these are the areas first damaged by the disease.
Last year, researchers at Northwestern University’s SuperAging Research Program found that neurons in the entorhinal cortex of super agers were significantly larger than those in people with Alzheimer’s disease and larger than those in cognitively healthy people of the same age. Even more surprising, super agers’ entorhinal neurons were larger than those in people 20 or 30 years younger.
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What Are the Secrets to a Younger Brain?
In addition to the larger size of super agers' neurons, they were healthier, too. A previous study found that the brains of super agers showed little evidence of the neurofibrillary tangles that are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, even though entorhinal cells are particularly prone to the formation of these tangles.
In a podcast with the American Psychological Association (APA), Emily Rogalski, head of Northwestern’s SuperAging Project, said that in super agers, the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain that is important for memory and attention, is thicker. Also, super agers’ brains shrink more slowly as they age than do most people’s brains.
Of course, this doesn’t tell us why super agers have bigger, healthier entorhinal neurons, thicker anterior cingulates and shrink-resistant brains. The researchers at the SuperAging Project and others are focusing on answering that question.
Healthy Habits of Super Agers
Bigger, sturdier neurons could be down to genetics. But likely, that’s not all of it. Super agers, it seems, try harder. A growing body of research suggests that at least one of the keys to aging well is staying active — both mentally and physically.
Physical activity is good for the brain. And according to the CDC, you don’t have to be a gym rat to get the benefits. Walk your dog, climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator, or just boogie around the house to your favorite tunes — all will give your brain the exercise boost it needs.
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Longevity Secrets of Super Agers
What encompasses activity, however, can vary from person to person. In the APA podcast, Rogalski points out that while cardiovascular exercise greatly benefits the brain, not all super agers are dedicated exercisers. As she puts it, some say they only run when they’re being chased.
Most, however, are physically active in one way or another. That might mean regular exercise, such as biking or walking, or it might simply mean continuing to work. However, Rogalski also points out that physical health is not necessarily required to be a super ager. Many people who do extremely well cognitively might need a wheelchair or walker to get around.
Staying mentally engaged is crucial, too. Learning something new or taking on a mental challenge are classic ways of staying mentally young. Activities like reading books, playing chess, and learning a language have all been associated with improved cognitive performance.
How To Become a Superager
For the aspiring super ager, staying socially connected is a good idea. Evidence has shown that people who stay sharp into advanced age have a higher density of a type of neuron called von Economo neurons, which are likely involved in processing social interactions. Just as with exercise, what counts as social connection varies from person to person.
You don’t have to be a social butterfly to get the benefit. Staying connected with your family and close friends is good, too.
One thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is that whatever the activity, whether it’s working puzzles or running laps, in order for it to help you age well, it needs to be challenging. “Our brains like to be challenged,” says Rogalski. Never got around to reading Proust? Still not happy with your tennis serve? Now’s the time. It’s not too late to work on your super ager game.
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