By Sari Harrar, AARP – Published November 10, 2023
Lucky genes don’t fully explain super agers’ razor-sharp thinking and memory skills, says Angela Roberts, assistant professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western University in Ontario. “Lifestyle matters,” she says. Here’s what they do, and what you should too:
1. Super agers control their blood sugar and blood pressure.
Super agers tend to have blood pressure and blood sugar levels that are healthier than in the general population. One way to control both is through diet. Older adults who follow an eating pattern rich in vitamin-, carotenoid- and flavonoid-packed foods such as whole grains, veggies, leafy greens, nuts, berries and fish, and low in red meat, butter and sweets slowed brain aging by 7.5 years and kept thinking and memory sharper in a 2015 Rush University study of 960 older adults. In a 12-year study published in 2019, this eating strategy lowered the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by up to 53 percent. If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, talk with your doctor about medications and other strategies to keep these conditions under control. Setting a goal of a systolic bp (the top number in a bp reading) below 120 lowered risk for mild cognitive impairment by 19 percent in one study of 9,361 older adults who took medications for their high blood pressure. For those not taking medication for high blood pressure, it also lowered the risk for either mild cognitive impairment or dementia by 15 percent.
2. Super agers don’t exercise more, but they push themselves physically.
Spanish researchers followed a cohort of 119 people, ages 70–85, for eight years; among that group were 55 super agers who scored at least 20 years younger than their years on brain tests. Researchers found that what distinguished super agers most profoundly was that they have greater speed, mobility, agility and balance than typical older adults — despite reporting the same exercise frequency.
One reason may be that super agers tend to do more demanding and rigorous activities such as gardening or stair-climbing, even though they report similar activity levels to other adults. In other words, walking a mile is good for your health; walking fast for a mile to get your heart rate up is even better. One British study found that just nine minutes of moderate-intensity exercise daily improved thinking skills.
3. Super agers avoid stress and prioritize mental health.
Another top distinguishing factor among super agers in that recent Spanish study: They reported lower levels of anxiety and depression than normal agers.
That makes sense: A recent three-year Danish study found that depression doubled risk for dementia, and a 2023 study found that those with the perceived high stress levels had a 37 percent higher risk for memory problems compared with those reporting low stress levels. Another study found that older adults with depression who got treatment — including medication and talk therapy — were up to 32 percent less likely to develop dementia over 10 to 14 years than those who didn’t get help. A fourth study found that those whose anxiety improved with talk therapy lowered their risk for later dementia by 17 percent.
4. Super agers protect their vision and hearing.
Researchers speculate that the brain may neglect memory processing as it instead puts extra effort into decoding blurry, muted signals from the world around us. A 2022 University of Toronto study of 5.4 million older Americans, age 65-plus, found serious cognitive problems for 28 percent of people with vision loss, 20 percent of those with hearing loss and 50 percent of those who had both poor vision and poor hearing.
Caring for your eyes and ears can pay off: University of Washington researchers found that at-risk older adults who received hearing aids showed thinking and memory losses that were 48 percent slower compared with those who didn’t get hearing aids. Similarly, a study of older adults with cataracts found that those who had cataract surgery had a 29 percent lower risk for dementia for up to 24 years compared with those who did not have the procedure. Getting help for poor vision — such as eyeglasses and cataract surgery — could have prevented 100,000 current cases of dementia in the U.S., according to a 2021 study.
5. Super agers prioritize sleep.
During slumber, your brain clears away toxic waste that builds up early in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2022 Canadian study found that trouble falling or staying asleep three or more nights per week for three months boosted the risk for worsening memory in older adults.
“Good sleep is really important for maintaining brain health,” says Jeff D. Williamson, professor, gerontology and geriatric medicine, Wake Forest School of Medicine, who suggests discussing sleep issues with your doctor. Don’t rely on over-the-counter and prescription sleep drugs on a regular basis. Chronic use of prescription sleep drugs boosted the risk for dementia by 48 percent over six and a half years in a 2021 University of Minnesota study of 4,197 at-risk people in their 70s.
6. Super agers do more than Wordle.
Super agers did crossword puzzles and Sudoku games more often than “normal agers” in the Spanish study. They were also more likely to frequently read, listen to music, go to concerts and movies, travel, play cards and board games, do something creative such as handicrafts or performing in a play, and attend lectures. “Variety is beneficial,” says brain-game researcher Aaron Seitz, professor of psychology, physical therapy, art and design at Northeastern University. “Your brain needs to do a lot of different things. If we want to do them well, science and common sense suggest exercising it in a lot of different ways.” Super agers tend to move out of their comfort zones and share a willingness to endure discomfort to master a new skill such as playing a musical instrument or learning a language.
7. Super agers talk to their friends — a lot.
Older adults who connected every day with others had less shrinkage in key brain areas than those who seldom had contact with pals and relatives, according to a 2023 Japanese study in the journal Neurology. Perhaps that’s why memory declined fastest and furthest in people who felt lonely most often, in a 2022 University of Michigan study that tracked 9,032 U.S. adults for 20 years.
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