No more “Senior Moments”.
I returned recently to the idea of the “super-agers” that I mentioned in Newsletter #044 (“Thimblerig”). These are defined by cognitive scientists in a very specific way. They are over eighty but have a memory comparable to someone thirty or even fifty years younger. Their memory test results do not decline. They are maintained well past the date expected from any stereotype. Their scores may even increase with age.
When their brains are scanned they show no signs of the physical changes common in older people. Those parts of the brain associated with memory operation have not aged. Encoding memories and retrieving them means maintaining attention as well as a good “data storage”. The parts of the brain dealing with both are unchanged. The cerebral cortex in particular is no different in size and thickness than someone thirty years younger.
This group is not insignificant. Studies show a range from 8 to 10% of the population. Many maintain their memories until the end of the studies or their lives. Some of the same studies focus on people whose memory is declining a lot faster than expected for their age. Such groups are measured at only 15-20% of the population depending on exactly what cut off point is used. There is still a large group in the middle that have only minor memory failings.
Successful Cognitive Agers
Other researchers have gone beyond memory. They have looked at groups who maintain a higher than average cognitive ability until late in life. In a longitudinal study of 10,000 women. 9% showed optimal cognitive function, on multiple tests, until well past 85. Another 58% showed very minor declines. Brain scans of such people often show that they recruit different parts of their brains than when young. They still have plasticity and can “rewire” their brains to get things done.
Physical Super Agers
VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can take in and distribute. On average people lose 10% of VO2max every decade from the age of 30. A physical super ager can maintain the VO2Max levels of a much younger person. Researchers used VO2max as a measure of biological age. A study looked at the 4200 participants in the National Senior Games in Norway. They found that they had an average chronological age of 68, but a VO2max age of 43. Physically they were super-agers. They had a capacity twenty five years younger than their chronological age.
How to Maintain a Young Brain
Researchers have looked at the characteristics of those people with "youthful brains". Some of the factors are beyond our control. They depend on the luck of birth. Women do better than men. Caucasians do better than other races. Higher educational levels seem to be important. Some researchers suggest that this creates a “cognitive reserve” that can be used later in life. These factors are correlated and can reflect regional differences in level of deprivation. They are difficult to change.
There are other lifestyle factors that are more under individual control. Smoking seems to make maintaining cognitive ability less likely. Moderate alcohol consumption seems to be OK. The cognitive stimulation that comes from living with other people is important. Loneliness has a negative effect. Stress has a negative impact. In previous Newsletters we have seen that the onset of a chronic illness can have a very negative effect.
Simply doing a crossword every day or a Sudoku may not be enough. Bradford Dickson of the Harvard Medical School studies memory super-agers. He suggests that mental and physical exercise are the same. “There is no gain without pain”. For mental “exercise” to work, it has to involve a level of problem solving high enough to be frustrating. Learning a language or a musical instrument, not doing a crossword. His super-agers see the world differently. They see a challenge and believe they can succeed. Others might give up. He suggests volunteering for something novel or doing new manual tasks.
The separation between the brain and the body is an artificial construction. It helps humans to think about ourselves but has no relationship to reality. They are part of a combined system. Exercise does help cognitive functions. Multiple studies have shown that exercise improves the functions of the brain. It is never too late to start. Ruth Bader Ginsberg the late Supreme Court Justice started with a personal trainer at the age of 68. This was after colon cancer. The more physical activity, the better the cognitive performance.
Researchers have also looked at the kind of diet that may help the brain. Eat Poly and Unsaturated fats. These appear in things like oily fish and olive oil. Vitamin E is needed so are citrus fruits and dark skinned vegetables. These contain polyphenols and anti-oxidants.
A Young Body to go With Your Young Brain?
If you want to be a physical “super-ager ”, Dickson has recommendations. You need to exercise at a minimum of 70% of maximum capacity for twenty to forty minutes at a time. This needs to be done three to five times per week.
You do not need to become a super-ager to benefit. Even training for 15-30 minutes, a few times a week can help physical wellbeing. It seems to have the biggest impact between 66 and 70 but benefits all age groups. Aerobic training alone may not be enough. Resistance work incrementally improves all types of physical performance. As we saw in a previous Newsletter exercise outside is particularly beneficial. The unpredictability of the surface and route engages the mind in a way that a treadmill never can (Newsletter #025 “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”).
Pushing Back Dementia
The incidence of Dementia including Alzheimer’s Disease is declining. Your chances of getting them is going down. You may be a super-ager instead. Part of the decline in incidence comes from the lifestyles we are all now living. Smoking is in decline. Average years in education is increasing. People are more active mentally and physically until much later in life. Average diet has improved. Dementia is more common is groups that have not benefitted from these healthy trends.