The general thinking is that memory and other brain functions automatically slow with age. But older adults known as "super-agers" have changed that perception. "This group of individuals can maintain optimal brain power much longer in life," says Yuta Katsumi, an instructor in neurology with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "They suggest that age-related brain changes are not always inevitable."
Old brain, young brain
Memory decline is often linked to brain shrinkage. But how much brain size changes with age is highly variable.
On average, a person's brain declines in volume and weight by about 5% per decade, beginning after age 40. Age-related brain shrinkage tends to affect the brain regions involved with learning and memory, like the frontal lobe and hippocampus. A reduced brain size is also less likely to maintain robust communication among its different parts.
"These brain changes can make it more difficult to learn and process new information, recall names and words, and focus on completing tasks," says Katsumi.
But super-agers' brains shrink slower — almost half as fast, according to some research. Why this occurs is not fully understood.
"There could be a genetic component that makes these people's brains be more resilient to natural shrinkage or shrink at a slower rate, but the difference also may be associated with lifestyle habits," says Katsumi. "It's also possible some people are born with exceptional memory, so they can still maintain higher-than-normal brain function even when exposed to natural decline."
Living the life
So the question becomes, can you make yourself a super-ager? While you can't do anything about your genes, it may be possible to slow cognitive decline — or maybe even improve cognitive function — by following the lifestyle of super-agers.
Many super-agers embrace habits that research has linked with healthier brains, including better memory and a lower risk for dementia. For example:
Be more social. Super-agers tend to have large social groups. Studies have shown that regular social engagement is a great brain booster. The opposite is also true. Social isolation is linked to lower volumes of gray matter in brain regions related to cognition, according to research published online June 8, 2022, by Neurology.
One way to increase social activity is to join a group. Men often find it most natural to bond with others over a shared activity or interest, so consider a walking group, golf or bowling league, card or chess club, or men's club at a senior community center.
If you already have a small circle of friends but have trouble getting together regularly, take the initiative and schedule a meeting time. Men respond well to routine, so try setting up a regular gathering for coffee or lunch at the same place, ideally a setting designed for conversation and discussion.
Challenge yourself. Studies have linked learning with better memory. "Anything that can stimulate the mind and engage you to learn new information helps," says Katsumi.
Focus on topics that interest you. For instance, study a language for an upcoming overseas trip. A study published May 15, 2019, in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that adults ages 59 to 79 who studied a second language for just four months (16 two-hour sessions) improved the neural connectivity in the brain regions responsible for attention, working memory, and language processing. Other examples include signing up for an online class, learning to play an instrument, volunteering for a favorite cause, or mentoring a youth. Even playing video games may improve memory in older adults, according to a 2020 study in Behavioural Brain Research.
Eat more "superfoods." So-called superfoods are high in antioxidants, which a growing body of research has shown help reduce inflammation and protect cells from disease-causing damage. But scientists also have suggested that other nutrients or compounds — like polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, and specific vitamins and minerals — also play a role.
It's no coincidence that many superfoods are staples in confirmed brain-healthy diets like the MIND, DASH, and Mediterranean diets. It's not certain which of these foods or what amounts are ideal, so the consensus is to focus on eating "superplates" — meals containing a variety of superfoods. Common choices include the following:
- whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa, barley)
- fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout)
- nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans)
- olive oil
- cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower)
- green tea.
Be more active. Super-agers are quite active. Research has suggested that exercise can help maintain and possibly improve cognitive function, even if you begin later in life. Aerobic exercise, strength training, and even yoga are all connected to better memory among older adults.
Guidelines suggest 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity exercise. But consistency is key. "The more active you are on a regular basis, the greater the brain benefits," says Katsumi. Doing a variety of activities can help you stay motivated. Choose several you enjoy and make them part of your lifestyle.
Image: © Fabio Formaggio/EyeEm/Getty Images