The stereotype that older people lose their mental sharpness is pervasive. Like all stereotypes, it invites judgment based on group membership rather than individual accomplishment. Nola Ochs [earned a masters degree at the age of 98. Peter Roget was 73 when he created the first thesaurus. Grandma Moses started painting when she was 77. At 81, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
While dementia and other diseases that affect the brain become more common with age, many people live long lives without suffering from a condition that impairs cognitive ability. Some degree of memory loss is common as people grow older, but many seniors have better memories than people who are much younger. Why memory loss afflicts some older people but not others is a bit of a mystery.
Northwestern University is studying seniors over the age of 80 who have the memory capacity of individuals who are 30 years younger. Northwestern has dubbed those seniors “SuperAgers.”
The research compares the memory skills of seniors who have similar IQs and ages to assure that superior memory skills are not a product of superior intelligence. About 10% of the seniors who join the research project meet the criteria to be considered SuperAgers.
Preliminary results suggest that the cortex — the part of the brain responsible for memory, as well as thinking and decision-making — shrinks more slowly in the brains of SuperAgers. The cortex of SuperAgers appears to remain structurally sound and is less susceptible to the abnormal formations of proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Brains of SuperAgers also appear to have more Von Economo neurons, spindle-shaped brain cells that “may be involved in the fast intuitive assessment of complex social situations.”
SuperAgers tend to be positive, socially-engaged people who regularly challenge their brains by learning new things, reading, and working beyond a typical retirement age. Since they often report that they have always had strong memories, it isn’t clear whether those activities help SuperAgers avoid the deterioration of memory or whether superior memory motivates SuperAgers to keep exercising their brains.
There may be a genetic component to SuperAging that is beyond our control. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that lifestyle choices help ordinary people maintain healthy brains as they age. Exercise and a healthy diet can reduce the risk of hypertension, diabetes, and other diseases that cause brain functions to deteriorate. Avoiding tobacco and chemicals that injure the brain is a must.
The CDC reports that regular physical exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline. Exercising for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week helps seniors avoid health conditions that harm brain functions. Dancing, taking the dog for a walk, and pushing a lawnmower are among the activities that contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy brain diet includes green, leafy vegetables, fatty fish (such as salmon and cod), berries, and walnuts. Surprisingly, tea and coffee not only promote short-term concentration but appear to solidify new memories.
Brain health is also related to mental well-being. Learning to manage stress effectively before reaching the age of 50 might protect against neurodegenerative disorders, including dementia. Yoga, meditation, and social interaction are among the strategies that seniors might adopt to maintain their mental health.
Seniors who engage in mentally stimulating activities are also less likely to experience significant deterioration of brain functions. Reading, working on puzzles, and pursuing hobbies that require mental effort (such as drawing or playing an instrument) can help seniors maintain mental agility.
If we can’t all be SuperAgers, we can at least take steps to promote healthy aging. Developing a healthy lifestyle early in life and maintaining those habits as a senior is the best way to keep the brain in good working order.