Superager: Start Now!

By Shlomo Maital


   Writing in the International New York Times, Lisa Barrett draws our attention to research on “superagers” – people 65 or older who have remained mentally sharp. Her own research at Mass General defines superagers as those whose cognitive abilities “is actually on a par with healthy active 25-year-olds”.   With dementia besetting up to half of those 80 and over, this is important work. And for me, 74, it is highly relevant – full of action items.

     Barrett cites research by Marsel Mesulam and colleagues, at Northwestern University and University of Chicago.* Here are the main findings:

       “The SuperAgers’ cerebral cortex was significantly thicker than their healthy age-matched peers and displayed no atrophy compared to the 50- to 65-year-old healthy group. Unexpectedly, a region of left anterior cingulate cortex was significantly thicker in the SuperAgers than in both elderly and middle-aged controls. Our findings identify cognitive and neuroanatomical features of a cohort that appears to resist average age-related changes of memory capacity and cortical volume.”

     Barrett explains this result. The crucial regions of the brain were “in emotional regions”…not just the cognitive regions. How to stimulate them?

     “These brain regions have an intriguing property. When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad – tired, symied, frustrated. …the Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: ‘Pain is weakness leaving your body’.   The discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines. They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. The result is a more youthful brain…”.

     So here is the lesson, not only for seniors but for all of us. Engage in “intense effort”, push yourself from time to time. Do it sometime just for the exercise. Push through the discomfort. And recognize that in doing so, you’re not only building your biceps, but also your lateral prefrontal cortex (where, by the way, ideas are born, and imagination flourishes).  

       In short: Even if you are older, even if those around you spoil you because you have grey hair, even if young people offer you seats on the bus or train…   do NOT spoil yourself. It’s so easy to do so. Do NOT pamper yourself. It’s tempting to do so. Go that extra mile, do that extra rep.   And by the way – don’t just sit around doing Sudoku puzzles either. It takes more than that.  

       Thanks, Dr. Barrett. We’re starting right now.

“Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging,” by Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam, and Emily Rogalski ,      J. Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2012    Nov; 18(6): 1081–1085.