For these very few — less than 1% of the United States population lives to 100, and cognitive super-agers are a fraction of that — their twilight years are not marked by a sudden drop in brainpower. On the contrary, the neurofuction of cognitive super-agers doesn’t change much at all after their 70th birthdays. They routinely receive top marks on tests designed to root out declines in understanding, communication, focus or memory.
How is this possible? Researchers are currently studying two methods by which cognitive super-agers are able to ward off the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease: via resistance or resilience. With the former, scientists say, some brains are just able to avoid damage. Genetics and lifestyle play a role. But with the latter, fascinatingly, some brains show signs of aging commiserate with Alzheimer’s and are able to weather the damage regardless. These people, Dr Yaakov Stern tells The New York Times, have “a cognitive reserve that enables them to cope better with pathological brain changes.”
Of course, longevity isn’t appealing to everyone; it isn’t uncommon to hear people wishing for an exit in their late seventies or early eighties, the sentiment likely influenced by watching some older relative suffer his or her way into too-old age. But as researchers unlock the secrets of society’s healthiest centenarians, and people continue to live longer (the cohort aged 90 and older is America’s fastest-growing population sector), a new kind of promise might begin to perform: live quality years into your hundreds.
No one has the answers yet on how to achieve this. There seem to be some genetic predispositions that help — brains that literally start out larger and stronger are less likely to atrophy (the same way a muscle in an arm shrinks due to lack of use or aging). Thickness of the cingulate cortex seems to matter, as does one’s prevalence of “von Economo” neurons.
But both resistance and resilience, researchers believe, can be influenced by lifestyle decisions. There are things you can do right now to stick around longer (and actually have your wits about you while doing so). One of the top recommendations? Enriching experiences. That could mean pursuing higher education, working a job that requires complex problem-solving, or mastering a new craft. Also on the list — protecting your hearing and vision (which are closely intertwined with cognitive function), finding a place in a supportive community, making time for leisure and play, eating a Mediterranean-style diet, and exercising regularly.
There are no guarantees here. You may not live to 100 if you do these things, and you may make it there and never remember your own name, but for now, they’re your best shot. The good news? They’re all things you could look back on after a life lived to only 70 and know you did it right.