Super-agers: This special group of older adults suggests you can keep your brain young and spry

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

My Facebook page is a collection of links to stories about inspirational people. Almost all have a common theme — older people who do extraordinary things. Some of my favorite stories, though, involve those with acute mental prowess. This special group of adults ages 60 to 80, called “super-agers,” have a higher resistance to natural brain aging and thus can keep their gray cells young and vibrant.

The science of super brains

What makes super-agers’ brains so super? A small study published in The Journal of Neuroscience looked at this question. Researchers enrolled 44 adults ages 60 to 80 and found that those who performed well on memory tests had brains with youthful characteristics. Specifically, the cortexes of their brains — the outermost layer of brain cells essential to many thinking abilities — were comparable in size to those of the younger adults in a control group. Scans found that the brain regions associated with the ability to learn and remember new information — which include the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex — were larger in super-agers than in normal older adults.

Lead researcher Dr. Bradford Dickerson, associate professor of neurology at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, said that one of the most surprising findings was that the size of the super-agers’ brains did not fall somewhere between the younger people and the other older adults. “Their brain size was close to equal to that of the younger subjects, which suggests that the brain size was preserved,” he says.

Wouldn’t you like to be a super-ager too?

Are super-agers born or made? Probably a little of both, says Dr. Dickerson. “There may be a genetic component that makes them more resilient to natural aging, but it also may be associated with lifestyle habits,” he says.

So, can you become a super-ager? While you may not be able to transport your brain back to your 20s, it may be possible to maintain and even improve some cognitive function with a combined approach to treatment, says Dr. Dickerson. For example:

  • Do regular aerobic exercise. Research has suggested that aerobic exercise can improve cognitive function, even if you begin later in life or have shown signs of mental decline. A study presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found that older adults (average age 67) with mild cognitive impairment who exercised four times a week over a six-month period (using either a treadmill, a stationary bike, or an elliptical trainer) experienced an increase in brain volume and better executive function.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Using MRI scans, a study in NeuroImage looked at the brains of 41 healthy men who were deprived of sleep for one night. The researchers found that compared with those who’d had a regular night’s sleep, they showed a decline in memory and attention. Older adults often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, problems that may reflect drug side effects or health conditions. See your doctor if you have sleep issues.
  • Lower anxiety with meditation. Chronic levels of anxiety may speed up the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). In fact, a 2014 study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that in MCI patients with mild, moderate, or severe anxiety, Alzheimer’s risk increased by 33%, 78%, and 135%, respectively. Mindfulness meditation can help lower anxiety levels, according to findings published online earlier this year by Psychiatry Research. Meditation programs for beginners are offered at many yoga studios and senior centers. You can try a free online guided meditation exercise from Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Related Information: A Guide to Cognitive Fitness