Why do so many older people experience age-related memory loss? Why do some develop dementia? ­Researchers have devoted tremendous amounts of time and money to the study of cognitive decline over the years…but far less attention is paid to the flip side of these questions—why do some older people not experience age-related memory loss or dementia?

A small number of researchers now are exploring this topic. Rather than examining older people who are experiencing cognitive decline in hopes of slowing that decline, they’re looking at people whose brains have remained remarkably sharp to determine why they’ve aged so well…and to see what lessons these “­SuperAgers” can provide for the rest of us.

Who is a SuperAger? Someone in his/her 80s or older who still has the memory function of a person in his 50s or 60s. SuperAgers are rare. Exactly how rare isn’t yet known, but many of those who get tested fail to make the cut.

Bottom Line Personal spoke with Emily Rogalski, PhD, a pioneer in the study of SuperAgers and head of ­University of Chicago’s Healthy Aging & Alzheimer’s Research Care Center, to find out what’s been uncovered about SuperAgers so far…

SuperAgers’ brains are biologically different. Their brains tend to shrink at a significantly slower rate than the brains of other people of the same age. Our brains usually are biggest when we are in our 30s and 40s, then they start losing volume by our 50s, with the shrinkage often accelerating over time. While a cognitively normal adult age 80 or older loses an average of 2.24% of brain volume each year, SuperAgers lose an average of just 1.06%, according to research from Dr. Rogalski’s group. Other differences…

A SuperAger’s cortex tends to be thicker than cortexes in the brains of other people of similar age. The cortex—the outer layer of the brain, akin to the bark of a tree—plays an important role in memory, reasoning, learning, problem solving and more. Multiple studies have found that thinning of the cortex is associated with cognitive decline. Also, the anterior cingulate cortex—a part of the cortex associated with cognitive processes such as decision making and social behavior—actually is thicker in the average SuperAger brain than in the average 50-year-old brain.

SuperAgers have several times more von Economo neurons than other people their age. These neurons are an uncommon spindle-shaped variety of neuron believed to facilitate fast transmission of information related to social intelligence. They have been found only in species known for their social skills, such as whales, elephants, dolphins, higher apes and, of course, humans.

What is not yet known: Whether and to what degree the differences between SuperAger brains and other brains are due to genetics and how much is due to lifestyle and environmental factors. But even if it turns out that a significant portion is genetic, that doesn’t mean who will and won’t become a SuperAger is set in stone. It is increasingly clear that genetics are not always destiny—it sometimes is possible to activate or deactivate key genes, potentially through our lifestyle choices, a process called ­epigenetics. And even if it isn’t possible to turn genes related to SuperAging on and off with lifestyle choices, it could eventually become possible to do so with the help of future pharmaceuticals.

SuperAgers’ lives are different. What do SuperAgers do differently than everyone else? If other people did these things, too, would it improve their odds of becoming SuperAgers? Research is ongoing, but certain trends have emerged…

SuperAgers tend to be extremely social. They have reported positive relationships. This social nature is one of SuperAgers’ common characteristics. But this isn’t necessarily disastrous news for people who are introverted—having one or two very deep relationships might be as beneficial as joining large groups and attending frequent parties. Something as simple as phoning a friend each day might make a difference.

SuperAgers challenge themselves to try new things and learn new skills. They tend to be intellectually curious, endlessly pushing themselves to explore unfamiliar topics and expand their expertise into new areas. Some remain in the workforce long after normal retirement age…while others pursue an impressive range of hobbies. SuperAgers’ intellectual curiosity is not because they have exceptionally high IQs or education levels—in fact, they do not stand out from other people their age by these measures. Rather, it’s possible that SuperAgers’ intellectual curiosity is among the factors that keep their memories so strong as they age. In a study conducted by researchers at University of Texas at Dallas, older adults devoted around 16 hours per week for three months to learning to quilt…learning digital photography…learning both of those skills…or engaged in activities that did not involve learning anything new. Those assigned to learning one or both skills experienced a significant improvement in their episodic memory, while those assigned the non-learning activities did not.

It’s possible that SuperAgers’ social natures might be related to their willingness to try new things. Having conversations with other people is, in some ways, very similar to trying new things—when someone else expresses a viewpoint that we have not previously considered, it forces us to process new information and rapidly form a response.

Many SuperAgers have endured traumas and hardships. It is striking how many SuperAgers have endured substantial suffering—the loss of a child or young spouse, for example, or an extended period living in poverty. There are SuperAger Holocaust survivors. While no one should seek out hardship to improve their odds of becoming a SuperAger, there is an important lesson here. We often hear about the negative ways in which chronic stress impacts the body and mind, but what truly affects our health isn’t whether we live a life free from major challenges…it’s how well we deal with the challenges that arise. SuperAgers tend to be extremely resilient in the face of challenges—they pick themselves up and figure out how to move forward. They might reframe the story of their greatest setback into a story of how they persevered and perhaps even overcame that setback.

There is a potential link between SuperAgers’ ability to cope with hardship and their interest in trying new things. Achieving mastery of a new skill often requires struggle and perseverance. That struggle dissuades some people from trying new things or causes them to quit, but such hardship is unlikely to stop SuperAgers.

There is no “SuperAger diet” or “SuperAger exercise plan.” If you’re tired of being told that eating right and exercising every day is the answer to all of life’s health and aging issues, here’s some good news. There doesn’t appear to be a single diet or exercise regimen that ensures the SuperAging phenotype. Some SuperAgers are vegetarians who work out daily…others eat whatever they like and have never exercised. In fact, a significant percentage of SuperAgers regularly drink alcohol in moderation. Some even are convinced that their evening martini or glass of wine contributes to their strong memory, though there is no proof of that.

It’s also worth noting that while SuperAgers aren’t all exercisers, they do tend to be active people who aren’t content just sitting around. A significant amount of physical fitness can be achieved by being active even without a formal exercise program. And eating well and exercising can reduce the odds of a wide range of age-related health risks. Example: One recent large-scale study done by the West China Biomedical Big Data Center and other institutions, published in Neurology, concluded that regular vigorous activity can reduce risk for dementia by 35%.

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