Northwestern University researchers have identified a group of people with brains who defy aging. Can you follow in their footsteps? (Photo: Getty Images)
If you’ve ever hoped to age flawlessly, inspiration may come in the form of SuperAgers: people aged 80 and older who have memories as sharp as those of healthy folks decades younger.
With funding from the National Institute on Aging and the Davee Foundation, Emily J Rogalski, Ph.D., and a team at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have found a select group of people whose brains simply don’t appear to suffer that ravishes of time that researchers many times see.
SuperAgers, instead, appear to have three things in common: a thicker region of a brain area called the cortex; significantly fewer tangles (which are a big marker of Alzheimer’s), and a higher-than-average supply of a neuron called von Economo, which is associated with “higher social intelligence.
Every year or so, SuperAgers in the Northwestern study complete cognitive testing. They also completed questionnaires about their personality, life — high and low points, and moments of wisdom.
“We hope that IDing factors of what these people have in common will help us understand Alzheimer’s, dementia, and normal aging,” says Rogalski. “Right now, we are helping people live longer—life expectancy is increasing, but the quality of life in old age is not following that same pace. We want to help improve that balance.”
But is it possible? Does the “SuperAging” process come down to lifestyle or biology? It could be both. While there appears to be a clear biological difference in the brains of SuperAgers and other aging people, SuperAgers “tend to be really active in their communities,” Rogalski says. Several still work, and many are involved in social groups.
Related: 17 Ways To Age-Proof Your Brain
Of course, it’s too soon to say that an active lifestyle can lead to the brain of a SuperAger—but time and time again, research points to the idea that the bigger your social network, the healthier you are.
Beyond that, the “typical” healthy lifestyle doesn’t seem to apply to SuperAgers. “People’s diets vary; some exercise, some don’t; some like martinis, some don’t; overall, though, they’re active participants in life — and activity can be measured in different ways.” Rogalski also adds: “They’re a delight and they’re intriguing.”
We were lucky enough to catch up with two. Here’s what they had to say.
Meet SuperAger Don Tenbrunsel, 87 years old.
(Photo: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
On traditional diet and exercise… “I am very grateful. I’m 87 years old and my memory is as good as it ever was and I have no particular joy in saying, ‘Oh good — look, I didn’t eat too many sweets.’ I’m about normal in terms of height and weight. My diet is not very good, but I do watch the weight so I don’t get too heavy. I also walk a lot—wherever I can. I don’t know that I have done anything in particular in my life diet-wise or exercise-wise or career-wise that would say, ‘Oh boy, that gave me such a good memory!’”
On curiosity… “If anything, I have always been extraordinarily curious — that has good days and bad days, of course! I’m interested in almost anything. Perhaps that’s what keeps my brain sharp — it’s working all the time. I have traveled fairly extensively in the past 15 to 20 years. I went to Israel in November. I’ve been to China and Russia and Vietnam and Thailand and a lot of Europe. I’m interested in seeing the differences in cultures.”
On how he keeps his brain sharp… “I like doing fast mathematics in my head — not calculus, just simple math or remembering a song from 1940. I remember when I was a youngster, people would turn to me and say, ‘Don what are the words to that song?’ and I always knew the words. I always loved music, but hey, there were some memory things back when I was little too!”
On his day-to-day… “I am retired. I do a fair amount of volunteer work, about three days a week. I live with my daughter, her husband, and their three kids and have for a while. I was the original babysitter! That’s given me a nice, positive outlook on life — is that a factor helping my memory? I doubt it, but it feels good. I spend time at Barnes and Noble too and read some of the latest excerpts or full books—that’s something I enjoy a lot. I’m a churchgoer. I spend a fair amount of time in my faith and I have four other children, so I stay in touch with them, too. I have an iPad and a laptop which helps.”
Meet SuperAger Grayce Papp (pictured, right), 86 years old.
On working… “I’m the president of my condo association. I’m very involved. We don’t have a property manger. I’m kind of the manager. I do most everything, but we farm out the accounting. Soon we are going over bylaws at a board meeting.”
On keeping her brain sharp… “I helped start a tutoring program in 1990 and it took off. We still do it on Tuesday nights — one-on-one tutoring, no charge to the student. It’s thrilling to see some of these kids grow. Going to college was not even on the horizon for them and now it is.”
On friendship… “My best friend Evelyn and I spend a lot of time together. We go to the Museum of Contemporary Arts, cocktail parties, and the Auditorium Theatre—we have tickets for the entire season!”
On exercise… “I don’t exercise regularly, but I try to walk when I can!”