Who Are the Super Agers?
President Biden recently announced his plans to run again for the Office of President of the United States. This has brought a chorus of concern over his age. He is already the oldest serving President and would be 86 years old by the time he finishes his second term. That is a large number! It is reasonable for people to be concerned. Let’s look at the aspects of physical age, brain age, and chronological age on the ability of a person to be cognitively intact and able to perform competently in their 80s and 90s.
Chronological age is the amount of time that has passed from your birth to the given date. It’s your age in terms of years, months, days, etc. This is the primary way people define age. Longevity is no longer a rare topic of discussion, but rather a way of life for most of us. The 90+ age group is presently the fastest-growing demographic. Celebrating centenarians’ birthdays is no longer a novelty but a common event. Chronological age does not give us any indication of the physical or cognitive status of the individual, just the number of years they have been on this earth.
Physical age starts to get to the heart of aging. Physical aging changes start to occur as early as your 30s. What you can’t see are your cardiovascular health, digestive changes, bladder, and urinary tract changes. Aging changes that you can see, and feel are changes to your bones, joints, and muscles. Wear and tear injuries to hips, knees, and shoulders result in a lot of replacement procedures as we get older. Muscles generally lose strength, endurance, and flexibility – factors that can affect your coordination, stability, and balance.
There are broad age ranges when these physical changes occur. However, these changes do not occur because of your chronological age, but rather happen because of lifestyle, genetics, and environment.
Brain age has become a topic of interest as people are living longer lives. We cannot see what our aging brain looks like, but we can sure feel the effects. We are at our cognitive peak at around 30 years old. From that point on we start losing more brain cells than we make. We lose 5% of brain volume every decade after age 40. By the age of 70, we have conceivably lost 20% of our brain mass. These losses occur in very important places: the prefrontal cortex is the executive function center of our brain. It is involved in planning, thinking, and decision-making, and facilitates communication throughout our brain. The hippocampus is the center of learning and memory. Losses in this area are felt with poorer memory function. The cerebral cortex is also affected by cell loss. This brain area is important in complex thought processes. Not only that, but the production of neurotransmitters declines, changing hormones, deteriorating blood vessels, and impaired circulation of blood glucose also take place. These brain changes can affect thinking, making it harder to recall words and names, focus on tasks, and process new information. Did I just confirm your fears about the aging brain? Stay with me because the more recent discoveries of neurogenesis (ability to grow new neurons) and neuroplasticity (ability to change your brain through new synaptic connections) have turned fear of brain aging into hope for a high-functioning brain until the day we die!
Because we can’t see our brain aging, there have been some benchmark chronological ages put in place to help us decipher brain aging losses. This is to help us – our brain has no idea how old we are or what our chronological age may be. Our brain ages by the lifestyle that we lead, genetics, and the environment. If we don’t embrace a brain-healthy lifestyle (physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, social interaction, sleep, stress reduction, and life purpose) our brain is not capable of growing new neurons and creating the synaptic connections that are responsible for changing our brains. We must replace the neuronal losses we sustain with aging to function on a high level.
What Is a Super Ager?
A Super Ager is someone in their 80s or older who exhibits cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged individual. Additionally, this group has been shown to exhibit less brain volume loss. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists measured the thickness of the cortex in 24 Super Agers and 12 members of a control group. Normally aging adults lose roughly 2.24 percent of brain volume per year, but the Super Agers lost around 1.06 percent. Because Super Agers lose brain volume more slowly than their peers, they be more protected from dementia. (Northwestern Medicine, 4 Habits of “Super Agers”)
Researchers have been grappling to explain why some people’s brains resist physical decline and why other people’s brains show physical signs of age, and disease-related deterioration yet continue to function well. Two theories being explored revolve around the concepts of “cognitive reserve” and “brain maintenance”. Cognitive reserve is the idea that some brains are strong enough to fend off the assaults of aging and disease. Brain maintenance is the idea that some brains have extra power to keep working well even in the face of aging and disease. (NIA/ Cognitive SuperAgers Defy Decline in Brainpower)
Another belief that scientists have about Super Agers is that the average person’s memory peaks in their 30s and begins to decline thereafter, Super Agers follow a different trajectory. Their brains seem to age much slower, and when they reach the age of 80 or above, their brains look and behave like the brains of people decades younger. (Emily Rogalski, PhD. What Makes Someone a Super Ager? Podcast)
Super Agers come from many different backgrounds and education levels and have encountered a variety of ups and downs throughout their lives. Some have experienced trauma, such as surviving the Holocaust or the death of a child. A current study with the SuperAgers evaluates their ‘life story’ to gain some insights into how they handled stress throughout their lives. Many Super Agers seem to have great resilience in the face of stress. Dr. Rogalski stated that “we all encounter stress and can react in different ways. One reaction can be to rise above, and it seems like these Super Agers are particularly good at really identifying the best in a situation and figuring out how to move on.”
Northwestern Medicine outlined some common habits of Super Agers:
· Super Agers live an active lifestyle
o Staying active is one of the best things you can do as you age.
o Physical activity results in increased oxygen intake, which helps your body perform optimally
o 20% of oxygen, carbohydrates, and blood from each and every heartbeat generate the energy required for optimal functioning of the prefrontal cortex.
o The increase in blood, oxygen, and carbohydrates is necessary for the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a neurohormone necessary to initiate new neuron growth.
· Super Agers continue to challenge themselves.
o Mental activity is as important as physical activity.
o A complex and novel environment stimulates and engages the brain.
· Super Agers are social butterflies.
o Super Agers tend to report strong social relationships with others.
o The attention region deep in the brain is larger in SuperAgers.
o This region is packed with large, spindly neurons called von Economo neurons. Which are thought to play a role in social processing and awareness.
o Autopsies on Super Agers revealed they have more than four to five times the number of such neurons compared to the average octogenarian.
With the help of institutional knowledge, expertise, wisdom, and a long knowledge bank of crystallized intelligence, an octogenarian is quite capable of taking on the challenges of advanced age and brain functioning. We cannot decern anything about cognitive capacity from chronological age alone.
Mayo Clinic. (November 3, 2022). Healthy Lifestyle/ Healthy aging. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org.
NIA/NIH. (July 31, 2020). Cognitive super agers defy typical age-related decline in brainpower. Retrieved from https://nia.hih.gov/news/cognitive-supers-agers-defy-typical-age-related-decline-brainpower
Northwestern Medicine. 4 Habits of “Super Agers”. Retrieved from https://www,nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/4-habits-super-agers
Northwestern University School of Medicine. What Makes Someone a SuperAger? Podcast with Emily Rogalski PhD