Posted on Dec 21, 2023, 3 p.m.
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia is increasing with an aging population, as such researchers are looking to find approaches that help protect us as we age. Studies suggest that an exclusive group called SuperAgers may hold clues to learning more about aging and age-related health issues. Superagers are people over the age of 80 who have been able to successfully retain the aerobic capacity and mental faculties equivalent to those who are decades younger.
The researchers at Northwestern University have shared some information from their SuperAger investigations of commonalities among this rare group.
SuperAgers are people aged 80+ who exhibit cognitive function comparable to a middle-aged person and they typically exhibit less brain volume loss. The researchers used MRI scans to measure the thickness of the area in the brain called the cortex in two groups of subjects: 24 SuperAgers and 12 controls. Generally, a normally aging adult will lose around 2.24% of brain volume per year, however, the SuperAgers only lost around 1.06%. It was suggested that because the SuperAgers lose their brain volume more slowly than their peers they may be better protected from dementia.
In addition to losing brain volume more slowly than their peers, SuperAgers tend to also have several healthful anti-aging habits in common that may be helping them to remain cognitively young:
SuperAgers tend to be very active, staying active is well-documented to be beneficial for both body and mind, and is one of the best things that you can do as you age. Regular exercise helps your heart and muscle strength training can help to reduce the risk of falls. Together they make a winning combination of physical activity that results in increased oxygen intake that helps the body perform at optimum levels while reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Exercising also helps to maintain a healthy weight which is important to the brain because having a BMI over 30 triples the risk for AD. As an example, exercising at high intensity, which can be done while playing a fun leisure activity/sport, for 20 to 45 minutes a day can physically help SuperAgers have the aerobic capacity equivalent to someone 20-30 years younger, according to a recent study from Harvard.
Cognitive fitness is just as important as physical fitness, mental activity has many forms and SuperAgers seem to really enjoy continuing to challenge their minds. You can stimulate and engage your brain in a variety of ways such as Sudoku, reading, learning a new language, painting, drawing, or taking a class to learn something that you are not familiar with.
SuperAgers also tend to be social butterflies, reporting that they enjoy maintaining strong bonds and social relationships with both friends and family. According to Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern who led this study, the attention region in their brain is larger than their peers, and this area is full of Von Economo neurons which are thought to play a role in social processing and awareness. Autopsies have revealed that this group has more than 4-5 times the number of these neurons than an average octogenarian.
"It's not as simple as saying, ‘If you have a strong social network, you'll never get Alzheimer's disease,’" says Dr. Rogalski. "But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list."
SuperAgers also like to enjoy life and indulge themselves, but these fitness buffs know that the key to this is to do it in moderation. They may indulge in dark chocolate, a nightcap, or an occasional glass of alcohol but they don’t make it a habit. Those who did occasionally drink were 23% less likely to develop AD or signs of memory problems than their non-drinking peers. It is important to note how important moderation is and this group adhered to drinking less than the guideline limits, drinking more than recommended amounts is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
Although certain diets are recommended for optimal brain health such as the MIND diet, which is a plant-based diet that combines the DASH and Mediterranean diets that have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, these SuperAGers did not follow perfect diets. A diet that is free from processed foods that is rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes helps to lower inflammation and oxidative stress which are known causes of chronic diseases and other conditions.
SuperAgers listen to their body for signs of when it is time to see a physician. However, some changes in the brain that can be common components of aging can make it hard to know when it is time to visit a doctor. Taking proactive and preventative measures can help, but it is important to watch for memory issues and identify them as early on as possible and consult your physician.
This group tends to maintain the recommended anti-aging lifestyle which includes but is not limited to keeping stress in check, maintaining a healthy BMI, regular exercise, challenging their minds, nurturing social bonds, following a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, having a positive mindset, and being mindful which can help to protect your brain as you age.
While prevention is always better than cure, there are some risk factors that can’t be changed and you can't control such as age, for most people symptoms appear at around 65 years old with the risk of Alzheimer’s doubling every 5 years after. Gender, although this area is still under research, women are more likely to get AD and the odds of this increase after menopause. Those with a family history of Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease, and those with more than one family member diagnosis are at an even higher risk.
SuperAgers are defying these risks by maintaining a healthy diet, living with purpose, having a positive mindset, challenging their mind, exercising regularly, socializing with other people, and taking the time to enjoy the little things. By making some lifestyle changes you too could become a SuperAger, it is never too late to try to become the healthiest you, and maybe you could enjoy a healthier life than those who are decades younger than yourself as well. You are worth it.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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