Are you a Superager?

As a known sucker for the introductory phrase, “Studies show…” I have been studying yet another new study. It’s about a very small group of old people who the gerontological world has dubbed Superagers. This elite crowd are not just “good for their age” in the memory department. Their brains are measurably as sharp as those of people a third their age.

A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience compared Superagers of 60-80 years with young adults of 18–32. Both groups sat an exam called the California Verbal Learning Test Long Delay Free Recall Test. Sounds daunting to me, but the Superagers aced it. Their memories were found to be on par with those of their youthful competitors.

What’s the secret of Superaging? In a word: pain. You have to feel it in your brain. It must ache when those gears grind.

“Superagers are like Marines. They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort.”

The New York Times 

No Pain No Gain

credit: Kusteez.com

“You must expend enough effort that you feel some ‘yuck’.”

Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the study’s authors

I don’t like where this is going. I’m already doing endless crosswords in the hope of boosting my memory. So now, while trying to solve a tricky clue, I must strain my brain until I feel yucky?

There was even a suggestion to hire a personal trainer who shouts “No pain, no gain!” in a foreign language. So that old chestnut is back. Only now it’s about mental rather than physical pain – the key to becoming a Superager.

What causes this phenomenon of youthful brains in older adults? It apparently has something to do with thick cerebral cortexes, confirmed by brain measurements. Bringing to mind another fitness maxim: “Use it or lose it!” Which makes me want to run a mile – away from the gym.

I am not totally convinced by the Superager study. What concerns me is this statement in its conclusion:

“It is impossible to know if these elderly adults were also top performers in their youth.”

Indeed, it could possibly turn out that Superagers are simply those who have excelled in pub quizzes all their lives. Thus it should come as no surprise that their memories continue to serve them well in their dotage. This follows the logic that many models and actors who were extremely attractive throughout their youth still look good as they grow old.

pub quiz chalkboard

credit: totallystockholm.se

My cynicism about this study was further fuelled by another of its conclusions: that education levels did not differ between Superagers and typical older adults. This contradicts the view that good cognitive aging is linked to higher education. My personal experience of observing friends and relations as they grow old indicates that age-related dementia can strike whether you spent your life working as a surgeon or an artisan.

All of the above makes me inclined to take my chances on how super I’ll be as I age. I would hate to spend all that time and effort taxing my brain, only to find that the next study shows contradictory findings on Superaging. Self-sacrifice is bad enough; it would be worse to discover that it was all in vain. Like those who gave up buttering their bread, only to find, after several decades of studies, that margarine is not necessarily healthier.

butter vs margarine

credit: geekydump.com

The scientists behind the Superaging study recommend that future research focus on identifying other factors that may play a role in preserving cognitive skills over time. These include diet, social activities, genetic factors and physical exercise.

I’m on board with the healthy eating and not being a hermit. And there’s nothing we can do about our parents’ history. So that leaves exercise. My worry was that the P-word was going to be invoked again, with the notion that pain leads to gain in both brain and body.

Luckily I stumbled on another study, which shows the benefit of something that involves no pain, but only pleasure. The study’s researchers call it NEPA: Non-Exercise Physical Activities. NEPA includes non-gym activities like taking a leisurely stroll, doing a few household chores, or pulling a few weeds from the garden. These activities proved to benefit cardiovascular health and longevity in older adults, regardless of whether they regularly exercised.

“Pottering around the house cuts heart and stroke risk.”

British Medical Journal, 2013

“The main takeaway is that getting out of the chair and doing something and moving around, whether it’s by walking, doing some gardening or dancing, appears to result in a reduced risk of cardiovascular events.”

– John Higgins, MD, associate professor of cardiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School

cave man to sitting man

Evolution?

This ties in with an earlier study I also heartily embraced, showing that simply standing instead of sitting can improve your health. Given that physical and mental health are related, there should be a knock-on effect on the noggin – but without the pain.

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