Super-Agers and Memory Health

Super-agers are a select group of adults in their 70s, 80s, and older who can match the memory performance of a typical 25 year old, and in some cases these older adults have far superior memory skills compared to people decades younger.

Most people begin to experience a subtle decline in memory in their 50s, with much of this “normal” decline related to cortical thinning and other age dependent changes in the brain. (Worried about the memory health of someone close to you? Use the memory loss checklist.)

So what is it about super-agers that help them perform cognitively like someone much younger?

A Super-Ager Brain Looks Like a Young Brain

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital scanned the brains of a group of older adults with extraordinary memory performance and found that certain key areas of their brains important for memory were as healthy and robust as a 20-something brain – there were no signs of atrophy or thinning in the brains of super-agers. The results were published in the journal Neuroscience.

Super-Ager brains look like the brain of a healthy 25 year old.

Super-Ager brains look like the brain of a healthy 25 year old.

These key brain areas included the hippocampus, anterior insula, and orbitofrontal cortex, all important areas for learning, memory and “cognitive control” – the ability to maintain emotional control in a stressful learning situation. This last part speaks to an ability that usually comes with wisdom and experience.

Increasing the Odds on Becoming a Super-Ager

The chances of becoming a super-ager depends on a combination of genetic factors (the DNA lottery we all receive at conception), and a number of modifiable lifestyle factors.

These lifestyle choices include physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, getting quality sleep, and having positive social connections.

  • Staying physically active can help minimize brain changes (such as cortical thinning) that come with aging. Physical activity supports good cardiovascular health, and also stimulates the neurotrophic factor BDNF, which helps the brain grow new neural connections.
  • Positive social engagement promotes better brain health. Sixty and Me has good ideas on volunteering activities that can provide social purpose and meaning.
  • Eating foods listed in the MIND diet, a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet (all around good for you) and DASH diet (follow to reduce high blood pressure). The MIND diet highlights the food and nutrients that research indicates is associated a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Good sleep is necessary for new memory consolidation, aka learning! New memories formed during waking hours are very fragile. If you are studying for an exam, or learning new skills for a job, a good night’s sleep is essential for those memories to be consolidated and stored for later retrieval. Memory consolidation occurs through the sleep cycle, especially during REM sleep.

See the Healthy Brain Test for more information on keeping your brain in good health.