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June 13, 2024

Super-agers definitely exist, but no one knows why

Research confirms that a small subset of octogenarians retain the recall of a 50-year-old—but as of yet, there’s no cheat code on how to become one.

In the news

Demographic data does not lie. On the contrary, demography—the statistical study of human populations—is a slow-motion truth-teller, illuminating trends long before their effects are felt. We ignore demographic findings not because we don’t trust them, but because we do. It’s just that sometimes, it’s easier to stick your fingers in your ears and sing, “Nah nah nah nah, I can’t hear you.”

Case in point: declining birth rates and the resulting aging of the world’s population. The phenomenon was never a secret, but for as long as possible, it was widely ignored.

That time is past. The baby bust is here, it’s accelerating, and its effects are being felt in the housing market, the workplace, healthcare costs—you name it.

In healthcare, though, one change has been welcome: the destigmatization of aging-related cognitive changes, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. As recently as a generation ago, these topics were taboo. Today, they are no more off-limits than hearing aids or assisted-living facilities.

While these conversations—not to mention a great deal of research—focus on declining abilities, interest has also risen in what is essentially the opposite: older adults who, at age 80 or higher, retain the memory capabilities of those 20 or even 30 years younger. Such people have been dubbed “super-agers,” and everybody wants to know their secret.

new paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience offers dollops of both good and bad news on this front. On the positive side, the research appears to affirm the concept of super-agers. Unfortunately, however, it fails to uncover universal truths about how to become one of these fortunate folks.

In other words, how well people remember things in their golden years may come down to dumb luck.  

The Cognizant take

The new study was conducted on nearly 120 octogenarians, roughly 54% super-agers and 46% with more typical memories (all subjects were pre-tested to ensure they had low levels of Alzheimer’s markers). The differences were “striking,” one of the study leaders said:  “We’re really speaking to a resistance to age-related decline.”

The super-agers were endowed with greater volume in parts of the brain important for memory, especially the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. They also boasted better connectivity between front-brain areas involved in cognition. Essentially, this and other studies reveal brains that look like they belong to 60- or even 50-year-olds.

Neurologists say fewer than 10% of the patients they see qualify as super-agers. If that’s one piece of bad news to emerge from the study, here’s another: For the most part, researchers have yet to find anything close to definitive characteristics of these octogenarians.

Is the secret in the diet? Amount of nightly sleep? Alcohol and tobacco use? No, no, no and no. Sure, the super-agers had slightly better health and mobility in a few metrics—but those looking for a cheat code will be disappointed. Physicians and researchers admit that if super-aging genes are anything other than a gift from God, they haven’t yet figured out what.

Super-agers will continue to be the focus of much study, of course. Someday, perhaps, the code will be cracked, and everybody will say of their mother or grandmother, “She’s 91 and still sharp as a tack.”  

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