Last Updated: March 27th, 2019
Ever feel like your memory isn’t as good as it used to be? This is something many of us experience or will experience as we grow older—and something that many of us dread. However, some adults have brains as sharp as those 30 years younger than them, even in their 80s.
The term “Super Agers” was used to identify these adults back in 2007, when Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center noticed that some elderly adults had astonishingly sharp memories. Despite being 80+ years old, Super Agers’ brains look 20-30 years younger than those of most other elderly people.
More recently, Northwestern University conducted an additional study that has identified three distinct regions of the brain that look different for Super Agers.
Specifically, Super Agers were found to have significantly fewer Alzheimer-type neurofibrillary tangles, which are a primary indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. Compared to an aged-matched control group, Super Agers had 87 percent fewer tangles. When compared to people with a mild cognitive impairment, Super Agers had 92 percent fewer tangles.
Aside from the lack of neurofibrillary tangles, Super Agers’ brains also show a significantly thicker and larger anterior cingulate cortex as compared to the brain of your average 80-year-old. This region of the brain has been tied to memory, conflict resolution, motivation and executive functions.
The third major difference in Super Agers’ brains is the increased supply of von Economo, a neuron that transmits information about behaviour and social intelligence. For Super Agers, researchers saw von Economo neurons increase three to five times more than those of a typical senior citizen’s brain.
One slightly discouraging finding to the rest of us: Researchers believe genetic, rather than lifestyle differences, separate the brains of Super Agers from other seniors. Therefore, it’s unlikely that you can develop a Super Ager’s brain based on lifestyle choices alone.
However, that’s no reason to give up on aging well. There are quite a few things that Super Agers can teach us about life and continued growth in adulthood. Here are just a handful of them:
Aging doesn’t have to be a bad thing – While I think many of us look at aging negatively because we expect to become physically and mentally weaker, Super Agers show us that you can age into your 80s and still stay mentally strong.
If more of us were to embrace aging and look forward to accumulating more knowledge in the process, we might enjoy our elderly years more.
The brain is a muscle that we need to exercise – While having the brain of a Super Ager largely depends on genetics, I think Super Agers also serve as a great reminder to all of us to keep exercising our bodies and minds throughout our lives.
Research has suggested that people who live active lifestyles throughout adulthood are more likely to maintain higher levels of brain functioning. People who are more sedentary throughout adulthood tend to have less gray matter in the brain areas responsible for learning and memory.
Looks can be deceiving – Another very important lesson I think we can all take away from the stories of Super Agers is that outer appearances are never the most accurate measure of who a person is.
Whether the person you’re looking at is a senior citizen or someone in their twenties, we should all remember to take the time to talk to someone before making judgments about him or her. Especially in the case of Super Agers, you might be surprised by the people you meet.
What do you hope to be doing in your 80s? What do you hope to have learned about life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!