It’s a long established fact that, generally speaking, cognitive function tends to weaken with age. But we’ve all met at least one senior who has remained sharp-witted well beyond the age of 65, defying the stereotype. Neurologist Marsel Mesulam coined the term ‘superagers’ to describe such folk; the brain-superior elderly.
But what’s their secret? Research led by Prof Emily Rogalski of Northwestern University found superagers’ brains contain more of a certain type of cell known as ‘Von Economo neurons’, which are found in areas of the brain necessary for attention and working memory (the anterior cingulate).
So, what can the rest of do in a bid to defy age and keep our brains sharp well into old age? Here’s a list of tips that might help you become a superager:
1. Eat well
A healthy, balanced diet is important for health at any age – but interestingly, being too slender in older age might be a bad idea. According to Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist at the University of California, people who are underweight after the age of 80 are more likely to die sooner. “It’s not bad to be skinny when you’re young but it’s very bad to be skinny when you’re old,” Kawas noted. So there you have it: permission to have a slice of cake! (After your healthy fish and veg, of course.)
2. Build strong relationships
Another thing superagers tend to have in common? They’re more likely to say they’ve maintained healthy relationships, according to research. This is interesting as it’s already pretty well established that loneliness and social isolation can be very damaging to health in older age – so keeping ties with relatives, friends, social groups and people in your community can be really good for you.
3. Keep up regular exercise
Familiar with Irene Obera? She’s an American track and field athlete – and in her mid-80s! Being the fastest woman on the planet for her age, Obera has been been breaking world records in Masters athletics for four decades. Her training schedule is spread over three days a week, then for leisure she takes part in gym sessions, tennis games and bowling. Her only record of ill-health was a self-inflicted incident, where she dropped a weight on her toe in the gym. You don’t have to become a world-class athlete of course, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that keeping active can help keep your body and brain well in older age.
4. Don’t smoke
Let’s face it, smoking isn’t going to help your health full-stop (and might even prevent you reaching old age, let alone staying fit and sharp). Furthermore, research carried out by NCBI (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health) found that chronic smoking is linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Tuck into fish and chicken
Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine at Boston Medical Centre, suggests elder people replace beef and pork with chicken and fish. Not only is high consumption of red meat linked with an increased risk of certain types of cancer, but the saturated fat can also cause damage to the brain. Then there’s the fact that oily fish is believed to help boost brain function, too.
6. Learn something new
The Synapse Project evaluated cognitive function in older adults, comparing the memory function of two groups – one who were instructed to quilt and learn photography for 16 hours a week over a three-month period, and one who just did the quilting. The results showed that those who learnt both activities at the same time sharpened their memory more than those who just did the quilting. So it’s never too late to take up new hobbies and projects.
7. Watch out for stress
As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has noted: “Stress that continues for a long time, a condition known as chronic stress, is toxic to your brain – it literally eats away at critical brain regions.” Stress is a part of life, but taking steps to reduce it and keep it in check – with relaxation, exercise, social interaction, etc – can help.