What is a SuperAger?


Have you ever wondered about that elderly person down the street, the one who seems to be sharp as a tack well into their 90s? Maybe they are teaching classes at the local community college, finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle each day, or simply wowing the neighborhood at dinner parties with their vast wealth of knowledge and memories. Perhaps they are the kind of person who seems to be thirty years younger – and when you find out how old they really are, you’re shocked! Aren’t they supposed to be slowing down in their golden years? It seems like they never missed a beat!

If you know someone like this, you’re in luck – you’ve met a SuperAger.

What is a SuperAger?

SuperAgers are unique seniors who are at least 80 years old and have superior memories as well as strong cognitive abilities. The term “SuperAger” was coined by researchers at the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program, which has been studying these unique elderly adults for more than 14 years. Hosted by Chicago’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, this study puts elderly subjects through extensive testing to determine just how good their memories are.

To earn the coveted title of “SuperAger,” a person’s memory must rank superior to the memory of those in their 50s and 60s. They must have excellent short-term and long-term memory to stay in the study. Only about 10% of those who apply to the program actually meet the criteria for acceptance[1].

Once in the study, SuperAgers go through a series of tests every year or so to determine how their brains are changing. 3D scans of the brain, as well as cognitive tests, are analyzed to help scientists determine why some elderly adults retain an impeccable memory.

What Makes SuperAgers So Special?

According to the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, our brains begin to shrink as early as our 30s and 40s. The rate of brain shrinkage goes up, sometimes dramatically, after the age of 60. The shrinking of the brain is related to the death of brain neurons as we age. The process is known as brain atrophy, and the National Institute on Aging reports that it is one of the key findings in those who are in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The brains of SuperAgers, however, behave differently. The cortexes of their brains (the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, decision-making, and thinking), shrinks much more slowly than those of people in their 50s and 60s[2]. It also starts out thicker than usual[3].

There are healthier, bigger cells present in the entorhinal cortex, which is a part of the brain directly connected to the “memory center” and one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease[4].

Those are already some huge advantages, but that’s not all that’s happening with SuperAgers.

Tau tangles are abnormal formations of protein within the nerve cells of the brain. Tau tangles are a telltale sign of many forms of dementia. SuperAgers tend to have three times fewer tau tangles than those of cognitively healthy adults, which is quite amazing.

And finally, they have something extra – more von economo neurons. These are rare neurons in the shape of corkscrews. What they do isn’t fully understood, but they seem to facilitate communication across the brain. They are found in the area of the brain that links the reasoning side with the emotional side – and that can boost attention span. These neurons might also give humans an intuitive advantage when socializing[5].

Scientists believe there could be a genetic component for SuperAgers, but there could also be environmental factors that contribute to amazing memory—and these are the factors that can be tapped into by anyone.

Can You Become a SuperAger?

It’s definitely safe to assume that habits and environment play a part in the impressive brains of SuperAgers because so many of the seniors in the study have certain habits in common. Incorporating these habits into your own life may or may not turn you into a SuperAger, but they can definitely help stave off cognitive decline and memory problems.

Try these SuperAger habits for better brain function:

·         Stay physically active. Physical exercise can not only decrease your risk of developing several chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, it can also decrease your risk of premature death by up to 35%[6]. In addition, staying physically active is a well-known way to boost your brain health. The CDC reports that cognitive decline is twice as common among those who live a sedentary lifestyle versus those who are physically active. The goal should be at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, which works out to 30 minutes a day. To further enhance your good health, it’s a great idea to look into a mobile medical alert wireless solution that can go with you as you exercise – this can give you the peace of mind you need to work out with no worries.

·         Keep a positive mindset. A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that optimism is associated with a longer lifespan and a better chance of living past the age of 90. Seeing even the negative things that happen in life as an opportunity to grow and change can contribute to longevity. Trying to look on the bright side for every situation might seem difficult, but the more you practice the gratitude and mindfulness that comes from optimism, the happier you will be.

·         Challenge your mind. Anything that challenges your mind is a great idea to stay cognitively sharp. This can include doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, playing board games, working jigsaw puzzles, reading, writing in a journal, playing memory games, or engaging in video games. Make a point of learning something new, such as studying a new language or picking up a new hobby. Challenging your brain through these and other methods can have long-lasting effects[7].

·         Get to work. Many of the SuperAgers in the Northwestern study continued to work well into their 80s[8]. This could offer many opportunities to continue learning and socializing, and depending upon the job, might offer physical activity as well. If you’re bored after retirement and want to do something new, consider going back into the workforce in a job you love.

·         Be more social. Being surrounded by family and friends is crucial for better brain health. Harvard Medical School reported on a study that found when people are lonely, their risk of dementia can increase by as much as 40%! Even if you don’t have much family around or don’t make friends easily, you can try other ways to stay social, such as volunteering in the community. If your loved ones live far away, consider using video chat to connect. If you are physically unable to get out of the house, find online groups dedicated to your hobbies or interests and chat with individuals there on message boards or in chat rooms. Do whatever you can to create community.

Staying Safe and Healthy into Your Golden Years

Even SuperAgers run the risk of suffering falls at home and on the go. And suffering a fall can lead to serious injury, including hip fracture or brain injury. In fact, falls are the top cause of traumatic brain injury[9].

When you suffer a fall, one of the greatest dangers is what experts call the “long lie.” It’s the time you spend on the floor after a fall, waiting for someone to come to your aid. The longer you go without help, the worse your outcome could be[10].

That’s why an in-home or on-the-go medical alert pendant is a very good idea. No matter how sharp your brain might be, 1 in 4 seniors suffers at least one fall per year, and that can lead to serious consequences. Having a button to press to summon help can provide peace of mind. When you press the button on your emergency response system, you will be greeted with a friendly voice within moments. The agent will be ready to assess the situation, figure out what help you need, get it on the way, and stay on the line with you until that help arrives. You do everything else you can think of to protect your brain, so why not look into medical alert technology to stay as safe and healthy as possible?