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August 30, 2017

What You Can Learn from Superagers

Superagers. Without knowing anything more about this term, it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Superagers are older adults with a “higher resistance to natural brain aging,” with “gray cells young and vibrant.”

Why are their brains so youthful? The Journal of Neuroscience published the results of a small study (44 people), and results indicated that those with exceptional memory test results had cortexes still comparable in size with the control group, which consisted of younger adults. Besides having a larger outermost layer of brain cells, they also had larger hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex areas, which likely helped them to continue to learn more easily and retain information more effectively.

The lead researcher noted that the sizes of these brain areas were not somewhere in between those of a typical younger adult and a typical older adult, but almost the same as those of younger people. So, it seems likely that their brain size had been preserved. He believes that superagers probably have a genetic advantage, but may also have lifestyle habits that support this brain preservation.

If you’d like to be a superager, recommendations include:

  • Regularly participate in aerobic exercise. This can help even if you have already started to exhibit signs of decline or are beginning an exercise program later in life.
  • Sleep! Regular sleep helps with memory and focus, so see your doctor if you are experiencing sleep challenges.
  • Lower anxiety because anxiety may contribute to Alzheimer’s risk. Here are guided meditations to try, free of charge. See your doctor if you struggle to manage your anxiety.

StatNews.com, meanwhile, shares an interview with a superager researcher. She discusses MRI tests that allowed them to gain confirmation about how certain brains atrophy slowly. Over an 18-month period, the brains of more typical people were atrophying at more than twice the rate of the superagers.

Emotional Connection?

The New York Times reports on superager research conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital. This research involved MRIs, as well, and compared the brains of 17 superagers with more typical people of a similar age. They noted thinner areas of brain tissue in more typical agers, but not in superagers. Where they found the differences, though, were in the midcingulate cortex and anterior insula, which have been associated with emotional, not cognitive, abilities.

These sections of the brain were labeled as the areas for emotion in the 1940s and are often still discussed that way, despite brain evolution experts debunking this theory decades ago.

These areas are actually major communication hubs — important for language, sensory coordination, internal organ regulation and stress management. And now, research shows how it plays a key role in superaging.

These researchers suggest that, to help facilitate the superaging process, work hard at something. By performing difficult tasks, mental or physical, these important brain regions increase in activity. Interestingly enough, when this activity is boosted in these areas, you can feel tired or frustrated.

So, the article concludes, “Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort . . . In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

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Healthy aging is hard on your own. Kendal at Home can help you age well and enjoy your retirement.

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