The average 80-year-old remembers half as much as they did when they were 50. But “SuperAgers” experience no such decline. Their memory can actually improve in that 30 year span.
How is that possible? Well, the group — given their moniker by a team of Northwestern neuroscientists — has a lot working for them. They’re the best of the best (retiree memory-speaking), with phenomenal genetic predispositions and personal histories that have made their brains resilient.
To be clear, less than 1% of the United States population lives to 100. SuperAgers are a fraction of even that. That means you likely aren’t one, and your brainpower battery will probably start to fizzle after your 70th birthday. Still: there’s a difference between feeling the effects of aging and descending into full-blown dementia (which impacts a third of Americans older than 85, though it’s believed that 40% of cases are preventable).
As America becomes a grayer nation, it’s worth studying and copycatting the patterns of our most dialed-in octogenarians. SuperAgers tend to practice a smorgasbord of life-extending behavior, offering even more evidence that lifestyle choices have an impact on quantity and quality of our years.
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Clues to SuperAgers’ cognitive prowess are discernible in their brains. They exhibit lower levels of suspected biological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, including amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Meanwhile, neuroscientists have noted a thicker cortical layer in the anterior cingulate cortex, healthier neurons in the entorhinal cortex and a higher density of von Economo neurons.
Those first two are affiliative with attention and memory, which makes sense. But von Economo neurons — which are up to five-times denser in SuperAgers — are an especially curious signifier. They’re associated with social interaction.
In short, you’re unlikely to find a lonely SuperAger. They cling to their co-conspirators, deep into old age. And when they lose them to the passing of time, they make the effort to make new sparring partners.
Of course, long-term interaction with loved ones requires a collision of chance, planning and values. This isn’t easy or guaranteed. America’s rising swell of “kinless seniors” paints a grim picture: as family trees become more stratified, our oldest are often left to fend for themselves.
So from a longevity perspective, it’s always a good idea for families to stay close and take care of each other. But there’s a degree of responsibility on the retiree’s side, too. SuperAgers know how to adapt to their age and lean into new roles. Instead of parroting old stories (Grandpa Abe-style), they ask questions. They take pains to bridge intergenerational divides, and thus remain part of the conversation.
This isn’t easy, but as you get older, it’s worth keeping top of mind. However easy it is to dismiss the culture or technology of those 50 years younger than you, you’ll be rewarded for doing the opposite. The difference can make a literal impression in your brain.
A life of dedicated social interaction — finding a third place, calling a family member, joining a club — is priority number one for dementia prevention. But these behavioral changes will likely help as well: