You may occasionally see a healthy 90- or 100-year-old with exceptional memory and cognitive skills. They are sharp, they can calculate mentally, they can solve puzzles very fast, they have great stamina, and they can solve complex professional problems even when they have retired and had no practice in years. They are called super-agers, whose genes and life-long activities protect them from age-related physical and mental wear and tear.
Not all of us have genetic benefits to peak in old age, but we can do healthy and engaging things at a young age to super-age.
Who are Super-Agers?
Super-agers are older people, typically above 75 years, who have superior cognitive abilities despite their age and expected cognitive decline. Their cognitive abilities, particularly memory and recall, are similar to someone in their cognitive prime a few decades younger. We reach our cognitive prime between 15 to 40 years, and then cognitive abilities start declining as the brain and body ages. But super-agers don’t show this decline.
Emily Rogalski and her associates at Northwestern University Mesulam Center coined the term “Super-Agers” to describe those above 80 years who have the memory capacity of someone 50 or younger. Since then, this research focus has gained a lot of popularity with many multi-million grants. And now, we are learning more about how people super-age and what they can do throughout their lifespan to maintain their cognitive abilities in old age.
There is high value in understanding superaging because it shows how some people enjoy a high-functioning old age with minimal brain/cognitive difficulties like Alzheimer’s and what others can do to enjoy the same privilege.
If you look at most healthy older adults, they have 2 things in common – they have been physically active through exercise and movement, and they have been mentally active for a large part of their lives.Healthy older adults – the super-agers – have 2 things in common. They have been physically active through exercise and movement, and they have been mentally active and engaged for a large part of their lives. Click To Tweet
Signs of super-agers
- No decline in attention, memory, decision-making, and reasoning as age increases over 70 years.
- High memory and attention
- Physically active and engaged life despite age
- High problem-solving and information-processing capacity
- Confidence in cognitive capacity
What’s different in their brains?
Compared to someone much younger, an average 80-year-old would take longer to memorize a list of random words, and typically have lower accuracy. However, a cognitive super-ager is likely to be better at memorizing than their decades-younger counterpart.
Researchers have considered 2 possibilities for why super-agers show remarkable cognitive abilities which go against natural tendencies. One, super-agers were always superior to their same-age counterparts decades ago, so even with cognitive decline, they are better than the average. And two, super-agers are particularly resistant to age-related decline and were not exceptionally better than the average during their youth. Studies suggest the second explanation is more accurate – a super-ager is resilient to age-related cognitive decline. They also tend to show fewer markers of Alzheimer’s and have lesser neural atrophy (destruction of brain cells and connections, resulting in brain shrinkage and thinning).
There may be genetic differences too that contribute to their thicker brains which resemble the brains of those 20-50 years younger. A brain imaging study using PET scans suggests super-ager’s brains are more resistant to the build-up of tau protein tangles and beta-amyloid plaques, which are known to cause mild cognitive impairments. For normal agers, the tau tangles cause expected cognitive decline, and beta-amyloid plaques likely push that toward more severe impairment.
In one study that tested 18 super-agers (average age 82 years) twice with a gap of 18 months in between showed no cognitive decline. Their performance on multiple cognitive tasks covering memory, reasoning, attention, and decision-making remained the same after a year and a half.
There are 2 fundamental factors that affect memory in old age, and both have a moderately contradicting effect.
There is age-related cognitive decline, where one’s performance on memory, attention, computation, and decision-making tasks worsens with age. This is a natural effect of aging where biological efficiency in the brain reduces along with the onset of medical problems (Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Stroke) that cause additional decline.
Despite this, research shows that our brain can successfully form new neural connections and new neurons even at the age of 90 years. This is called neuroplasticity, and it enables us to learn and adapt at any age. So the oldest of us can learn new skills and use our brains in novel, non-habitual ways to solve cognitive problems like puzzles and do well in memory-intensive tasks.
An active life of learning and engagement with the environment builds cognitive and brain reserve, which maintains maximum brain function. They are a surplus of neural structures and cognitive enhancements acquired through an engaging learning-focused life. They typically develop when one develops mastery in some areas and explores the world. So when age-related decline or disease destroys neural pathways or hampers basic attention, these other structures and enhancements take over to compensate for deficiencies. These may be controllable factors that can make you super-age because they naturally combat age-related cognitive decline and fortify the brain against neurodegeneration.
- Brain reserve: Brain reserve is the entire collection of surplus biological systems in the brain that can take over when other brain systems aren’t getting the job done. Brain reserve typically occurs in the number of neural connections and alternate pathways formed through learning that aren’t necessary but great to have as a backup. High brain reserve generally appears like high neural volume and density in the brain.
- Cognitive reserve: Cognitive reserve is the entire collection of surplus thinking strategies and learning that help us solve problems and adapt to the environment. Learning new ways to memorize and thinking about patterns with music or art are forms of cognitive reserve. High cognitive reserve generally appears like having multiple ways to deal with problems acquired through specialized learning.
Brain and cognitive reserve act as a protective factor that defends against expected and unexpected wear-and-tear in the brain, so it helps people super-age.
Superaging is a special case of the more general concept of “successful aging,” which is when an old person is psychologically, physically, and socially healthy. Sometimes, this is called active aging or healthy productive aging.
Successful agers have 4 key traits:
- They avoid disability and disease
- They are active in life
- They are well adjusted
- Their cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is intact or high enough to enable a good life
Signs of successful aging:
- Exercise regularly
- Physical functioning, including movement and organ functioning, is adequately intact
- No signs of disability
- Reasonably independent
- Able to navigate everyday hurdles
- Have social connections
- Able to have fun and engage in mentally stimulating activities
- Confident in making good decisions
Blue Zones: Living like the healthiest people in the world
Authors Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain describe the concept of blue zones® where people living in those zones live longer than the rest of the world and are generally far healthier. A lot of people try to follow their lifestyle to age successfully.
Blue zones® have many healthy 90 and 100-year-olds. They typically lead a simple but highly engaged & fun life – they are connected to nature, walk and move a lot every day, exercise, value independence, eat a plant-based diet, and consume moderate amounts of coffee and alcohol. They have fewer cases of heart disease, obesity, and dementia.
Good habits aren’t the primary reason for many blue-zone people who lead healthy lives in their 90s. The Longevity Genes Project shows that genes are very influential when it comes to aging and protective genes limit the impact of bad habits. Some people with protective genes are well protected against physical problems, so they don’t have to meticulously optimize their food and lifestyle. They can get by with habits like drinking and smoking, which generally harm the rest of the population.
Famous super-agers alive today
Here is my pick of super-agers alive today (selected as of 21 Nov. 2022). They tend to be athletes, scientists, and actors.
- Stellios Prasses (91 years): Ran the Athens Marathon at 91.
- Dadi Bhagwani (90 years): Gold medalist in shot put, 100m running, and javelin throw at 90.
- Robert De Niro (79 years): Actor.
- Ruskin Bond (88 years): Fiction and non-fiction author + poet.
- Sir Roger Penrose (91 years): Nobel Laureate, Physicist, mathematician, Author.
- Lord Meghnad Desai (82 years): Economist, member of the House of Lords of the United Kingdom.
Others like Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Anniston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are in the process of superaging with their health and cognitive function mostly intact.
How to become a super-ager
There are many purposeful activities we can do to keep our brain health optimal. They are ways to build cognitive and brain reserve and improve the chances of successful aging and superaging. Here’s a summary of “neural maintenance activities” you can perform before 50-60 years of age to enjoy a cognitively rich 80-90-100 years of age.
- Stay connected to people and engage with them through culture, friendships, romance, fun, and work
- Rich variety of experiences is a component of a good life, and those with a better life tend to live longer.
- Staying socially engaged with deep, meaningful connections protects us from physical and mental deterioration. Loneliness has negative effects like reduced life satisfaction, poor coping with mental illness, increased chances of mental health issues, increased negative thoughts, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
(this may help you break out of loneliness).
- Sleep well and rest
- Sleep restores the body and brain where glial cells in the brain clean up damaged neurons and restore some for better functioning. Sleep also solidifies learning, adding to cognitive and brain reserve through new structural changes in the brain.
- Inadequate sleep is a known risk factor for heart disease, autoimmune disease, and mental health problems.
- Rest when you are tired by engaging in fun, leisure activities so your brain isn’t always stressed.
(try these to improve your sleep routine without medication)
- Eat healthily
- Eat your plants, grains, and fruits which contain dietary flavonoids. Flavanoids protect vulnerable neurons from decay. They reduce the chance of brain shrinkage and cell death.
- Consume Vitamin B-12, Omega-3, and Folate/Folic acid for healthy cognitive functioning.
- Minimize excess sugars and carbohydrates because they are a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s, Obesity, Diabetes, and memory dysfunction.
- Consume fiber-rich food like strawberries, avocados, carrots, and lentils because it promotes the formation of new neurons.
- Exercise and move enough throughout your life because exercise is one of the most controllable ways to stay physically and psychologically healthy. Exercise increases neuroplasticity – new brain cells and connections. A sedentary, passive life increases the risk for all sorts of diseases including Alzheimer’s and heart problems.
- Get aerobic exercise 3-4 times a week
- Lift weights or keep a routine of strength/resistance training because moderate exercise produces BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which helps to build brain reserve in the elderly.
- Walk in nature
- Have healthy movements like short-distance walking, sex, and dance
- Be confident in your learning capacity because confidence affects how well you keep practicing your cognitive abilities to keep them sharp. This confidence is a form of “metamemory.” Most age-related cognitive complaints begin with a complaint similar to “I am getting forgetful” or “I can’t trust my memory now.” Confidence often drops before there is an objective drop in memory capacity, which reduces the chance of strengthening memory through practice. Knowledge of how well your memory works is a starting point to learn how to compensate for it when the time comes.
- Learn a musical instrument, and don’t give up easily. Learning music engages a wide variety of brain networks and helps to build cognitive/brain reserve. Music typically engages auditory regions, motor and fine motor control, the cortex for music comprehension and decision-making, emotional networks, and social networks through collaboration. All of these fortify the brain against wear and tear. Lifelong musical training tends to maintain cognitive function and the cerebellum, which governs posture and movement. They tend to have higher gray matter volume indicating high cognitive and brain reserve.
- Learn a new language and use it frequently. Like music, second and third language learning is also a holistic way to maintain your brain and enjoy cognitive benefits later in life. It teaches about culture and people with context, which the brain loves. Multilingualism is a known defense against Alzheimer’s and age-related cognitive decline.
- Manage chronic stress. Stress deteriorates the body quite literally by accelerating the aging process. Here are ways to relax.
- Keep your brain engaged with a variety of activities. The brain follows a use-it-or-lose-it principle where neural circuits that aren’t used weaken and those that are used strengthen. You can keep your brain active by engaging in many games, sports, intellectual tasks like reading/writing/coding, physical tasks like carpentry, gardening, traveling, and engaging with culturally different people.
- Avoid smoking and excessive drinking. Both are risk factors for early mortality and health deterioration.
- Stay connected to nature. Fresh air, sunlight, animals, plants, greenery, natural sounds, etc., improve well-being. Negative ions emerging through energetic events like storms, waterfalls, and oceans and the microorganisms present in natural environments improve immunity and reduce inflammation. These go a long way in maintaining health throughout the lifespan.
If this isn’t enough of a reason to keep learning, here are some more.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.