New Study Provides Clues on How SuperAgers Maintain Better Brain Health and Mental Sharpness

 

In expanding their research on the unique group of older individuals known as SuperAgers, aging experts have recently unlocked new information on how these people possess better brain health and mental sharpness than those who are 20-30 years younger than them.

What is a SuperAger?

SuperAgers are a special cohort of individuals—aged 80 and older—who possess extraordinary cognitive capabilities that outperform normal aging brains. The term was created by Northwestern University in the kickstarting of their SuperAging Research Program. To qualify as a SuperAger and participate in the program, a person must meet rigorous cognitive testing requirements. This determines whether or not they are eligible to join, as qualified candidates must display good or better memory than individuals in their 50s and 60s.

The grey areas surrounding SuperAger brain activity explained 

The Lancet Health Longevity journal recently published new research findings for one of the largest observational studies on SuperAgers. The study dissected the shared lifestyle differences of SuperAgers that played a role in their ability to maintain razor-sharp mental function. It leveraged existing data from The Vallecas Project, a Madrid-based research study on the neurodegenerative Alzheimer’s disease.

[RELATED: Researchers Say Most Alzheimer’s Disease Cases Are Preventable—Find Out How]

In assessing research from the Vallecas Project and its 1,213 participants, 64 SuperAgers and 55 cognitively normal adults were recruited from that study to join this newer study on SuperAger brain activity. All participants (both SuperAgers and cognitively normal adults) were above the age of 79.5 years old and had no neurological or severe psychiatric disorders. They also exhibited behaviors in which they excelled in cognitive tasks but didn’t visibly display SuperAger memory ability. Additionally, the individuals were self-sufficient in daily living activities. 

Previous data used from the Vallecas Project were a product of one baseline visit and eight annual follow-up visits that included demographic and lifestyle data collection, MRI (brain) scanning, and blood tests. The newer study required participants to take memory and non-memory tests to examine episodic memory function and cognitive performance. In the end, it was established that SuperAgers’ brains are in such great shape due to them having higher grey matter volume in the brain compared to the typical older adults. The areas with higher grey matter volume were associated with functions relating to motor activity, mobility, and memory. 

In the end, it was established that SuperAgers’ brains are in such great shape due to them having higher grey matter volume in the brain compared to the typical older adults. Click To Tweet

The SuperAger’s brain showcased an ability to preserve sufficient grey matter volume in the motor thalamus, which is linked to faster episodic memory learning. For cognitively normal older adults, grey matter volume typically declines with age. Two tests (the timed “up-and-go” test and the finger-tapping test, assessment tools used to evaluate mobility) demonstrated SuperAgers’ ability to outperform typical older adults in mobility, agility, and balance—all of which are associated with better memory. Studies show that individuals with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease tend to be slower with gait speed, balance, and finger tapping, further proving SuperAgers’ advanced brain abilities.

Typical older adults and SuperAgers also shared similar percentages of ApoE4+, a genotype that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Lower scores in depression and anxiety levels indicated that SuperAgers have better-quality mental health than typical older adults. Two key risk factors for dementia are depression and social isolation, according to research.

Two key risk factors for dementia are depression and social isolation, according to research. Click To Tweet

Surprisingly, SuperAgers shared similar exercise frequency levels as the typical mature adults. Thus, study researchers noted that SuperAgers’ faster movement speeds could result from the non-exercise physical activities that they do, such as gardening and climbing stairs. However, there was a higher likelihood of SuperAgers being more active during midlife than typical older adults. In terms of sleep quality, SuperAgers also made fewer complaints about getting enough. Poor sleep is a risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Thus, study researchers noted that SuperAgers’ faster movement speeds could result from the non-exercise physical activities that they do, such as gardening and climbing stairs. Click To Tweet

The ultimate brain health booster—your diet

Dementia is rare in the blue zones region of Ikaria, Greece—especially among individuals over the age of 85. Thus, adopting centenarian lifestyle practices may help reduce the risk.  For instance, diet plays a huge role in the smaller occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

Registered dietitian Sylvia Klinger suggests that it has to do with the gut-brain axis, the connection between the gut and the brain. “The benefits of eating to fuel your microbiota go beyond the gut and extend to the brain,” and “keeping a healthy gut starts with an abundance of fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans),” she says. 

“What makes the diets of [centenarians from the blue zones] so beneficial to the brain and gut (to name a few benefits), is that the [diets of these extraordinary individuals] is rich in fiber – includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, which are all beneficial to the brain,” Klinger concluded. 

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