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FRED FIRST: And the Memories Live On: Super-agers

Their brains age more slowly than normal-agers

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

Not a day passes that I don’t remember my mother, but especially this time of year. The end of May two years ago was when she entered the hospital for a “simple surgery” and never recovered fully.

Ill health only savaged the very end of her long life. She died in her apartment on July 13, 2022 at 96.

She was healthy and living independently (with minor assistance). She had her own teeth. She only wore glasses to read. She exercised every day.

But what still seems to me most remarkable about Betty Jean was the sharpness of her thinking; her whit; and her memory.

She had the cognitive abilities of someone decades younger. She visited us in Floyd often, and we didn’t hesitate to take her with us to pot lucks with our friends, where she had lucid and rational conversations with our friends, and remembered the details for later.

I think my mother was a super-ager.

And so I have been interested in finding out what is known about the phenomenon. Is it totally a unique structural brain feature from birth? Can it be inherited? (Yes.) Can it be promoted through lifestyle choices?

DEFINITION AND HISTORY

The term super-ager was coined in 2008 and is defined as “someone age 80 or older who exhibits cognitive function that is comparable to an average person who is middle-aged.”

Less than 10% of the population have Super-Aging brains that show resistance to atrophy and are lacking signs of brain atrophy as in Alzheimers Disease.

Super-Agers tend to be more active in mid-life and overall have better mental health.

But they may or may not get regular exercise at 80. They may have a “healthy” diet or pay no particular attention to diet.

Some smoked. Some didn’t. Some drink alcohol. Some didn’t.

But the common factor is that super-agers are social butterflies.

SOCIAL ABUNDANCE and DOING HARD THINGS for FUN

Super-agers consistently continue to challenge themselves (learning a new language, playing music, reading difficult books etc). I’d think, because of their exceptionally preserved memory, such things would come easier and be more enjoyable and less frustrating for them than for an age peer whose memory is failing..

Super-agers are socially active. They are not shy about engaging with friends or strangers, and are willing to participate in gatherings from which their circle of connection grows.

The behavioral tendency of super-agers to join and participate might have a brain-biology basis.

Their brains are structured in such a way that they are said to contain 4-5 times more cells in their “salience network” than normal-agers. That is a significant difference in brain structure, presumably present from birth.

This “network” consists of brain components that work together in a healthy individual to promotes social awareness and connection.

That this region remains healthy into the 80s also likely contributes to the super-ager remaining free of disorders that result from a defective “salience network.” This was a new term for me.

What is the “salience network” of the brain, and what might be its role in “super-agers” From Perplexity.ai


If there is one modifiable variable towards a healthy mental and physical life into and beyond the 80s, it seems to be the super-ager’s social capital of their long and well-remembered lives.

I will have more to say about this soon, as well to update the ongoing tale of moving west. From that new home base we will hope to grow memories from our own elder years before too long.

There have been developments.

Son Nathan, here at age five, soon a resident of Missouri again. Where have the forty years gone? Will he remember? Will we?

– Fred First is an author, naturalist, photographer watching Nature under siege since the first Earth Day. Cautiously hopeful. Writing to think it through. Thanks for joining me. Subscribe to My Substack HERE

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