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4 Habits of “SuperAgers”

Help Protect Yourself From Dementia

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are on the rise, but you can take a proactive approach to help protect yourself as you age. Although it’s an exclusive group, research suggests SuperAgers might hold the key to learning more about aging and age-related health issues like dementia. This research attempts to identify commonalities among these cognitively “young” individuals.

Neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, PhD, leads the SuperAging study at Northwestern University in Chicago and shares some of the scientists’ findings.

What’s a SuperAger?

A SuperAger is someone in their 80s or older who exhibits cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged individual. Additionally, this group has been shown to exhibit less brain volume loss. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists measured the thickness of the cortex in 24 SuperAgers and 12 members of a control group. Normally aging adults lose roughly 2.24 percent in brain volume per year, but the SuperAgers lost around 1.06 percent. Because SuperAgers lose brain volume more slowly than their peers, they may be better protected from dementia.

Common Habits of SuperAgers

1.  SuperAgers live an active lifestyle.

Staying active is one of the best things you can do as you age. Physical activity results in increased oxygen intake, which helps your body perform optimally. Exercise helps your heart, and muscle-strengthening exercises specifically reduce the risk for falls.

Regular exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight. The risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease triples in individuals with a body mass index (BMI) over 30. Even exercising twice a week will help lower your chances of getting the disease later in life.

2.  SuperAgers continue to challenge themselves.

Mental activity can be just as important as physical activity. If Sudoku doesn’t speak to you, no need to fret. Mental activity comes in many forms. Try reading an article on a subject with which you’re unfamiliar, or take classes that put you outside your comfort zone. These will help stimulate and engage the brain in new ways.

3.  SuperAgers are social butterflies.

SuperAgers tend to report strong social relationships with others, says Dr. Rogalski. To support this, the attention region deep in the brain is larger in SuperAgers. This region is packed with large, spindly neurons called von Economo neurons, which are thought to play a role in social processing and awareness. Dr. Rogalski states that autopsies on SuperAgers revealed they have more than four to five times the number of such neurons compared to the average octogenarian.

"It's not as simple as saying, ‘If you have a strong social network, you'll never get Alzheimer's disease,’" says Dr. Rogalski. "But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list."

4.  SuperAgers indulge.

Yes, you read that correctly. Dr. Rogalski’s SuperAgers included individuals who are fitness buffs and those who indulge in a nightcap every evening. They also indulged in an occasional glass of alcohol; moderate drinkers were 23 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or signs of memory problems than nondrinkers.

The key here is moderation. It’s equally important to note that drinking more than the recommended amount would be considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Other Ways to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

To better understand your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, it’s first important to understand more about it.

Dementia is a clinical diagnosis given when an individual experiences the loss of memory or other thinking skills to such an extent that they interfere with one’s daily life. Alzheimer’s dementia is the most common neurodegenerative dementia and is diagnosed when memory is the initial and most prominent symptom. There are other neurodegenerative dementia syndromes where the initial symptoms may be loss of language or other thinking abilities.

In Alzheimer’s disease, the brain cells stop functioning correctly and eventually die, leading to severe changes in thinking ability. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but researchers are actively developing and testing therapies to prevent or stop the disease.

While studying SuperAgers can lead to suggested lifestyle changes, it’s important to know that some dementia risk factors cannot be changed. Risks you cannot control include:

  • Age. For most, symptoms tend to appear after the age of 65, and the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years.
  • Family history. Those with a relative who has or had Alzheimer’s disease are more likely to develop the disease. Those with more than one family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have an even higher risk.
  • Gender. Women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, and the odds increase after menopause. The reasons for this remain an active area of research.

You Are What You Eat

Although the SuperAgers in Dr. Rogalski’s group did not all have perfect diets, certain diets are recommended for optimal brain health. The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a plant-based diet that combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It has been shown to reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

A Mediterranean diet consists of healthy, unprocessed foods such as fish, vegetables, fruits and legumes. The lesser-known DASH diet calls for reduced sodium intake through a diet consisting of whole grains and vegetables. The combination results in a diet that encourages eating berries, leafy greens, olive oil, whole grains, beans and even wine. A combined diet works by lowering your risk for inflammation and oxidative stress, two possible causes of chronic disease and other health conditions.

See what other foods are good for your brain.

When to See a Physician

Some changes in memory and thinking abilities can be common components of aging, so it can be difficult to know when to see a physician. Although taking proactive measures can help, it’s important to identify memory issues early on. If you believe you are at risk or showing signs of Alzheimer’s dementia, consult your physician.

Learn more about what Northwestern Medicine researchers are discovering about aging.