Researchers at Northwestern and at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard have recently begun focusing on a group of older adults called "superagers." Generally, superagers are defined as adults in their 70s and 80s with brain performance and structure similar to adults in their 50s or 60s.
You may know some superagers. If you're old enough, you may even be one. Superagers are engaged in life and highly interested in learning. They're "sharp as a tack," full of energy, and maintain a positive outlook (Associated Press).
What researchers discovered when they studied the brain images of superagers is that the "gray matter" of their brains, the cerebral cortex, is thicker and contains fewer plaques than the brains of the majority of their peers. This additional "gray matter" enhances their ability to perform complex cognitive functions related to memory, abstraction, language, judgment, creativity, judgment, emotion, and attention (Swenson).
How do people become superagers? Dr. Kornel, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, says that genetics makes a difference; some people are born "gifted." He does not downplay, however, the effects of environment. Physical and mental exercise, healthy diets, and social activity are also important.
Another researcher, from the the Massachusetts General/Harvard study, Dr. Barrett, suggests that the secret to being a superager is the willingness to push oneself to perform, mentally and physically. Nancy, a superager recently interviewed for the Today Show, exemplifies this concept. Nancy is a 74-year-old whose brain scan compares to that of a 20-year-old. Nancy credits her brain's youthfulness to daily exercise and constant exposure to new challenges. In the past year, for example, she has learned to play chess, pool, and the piano.
So what's your challenge for the day? Even if you think you're not destined to be a "superager," there's no telling what you can accomplish by pushing yourself to reach its full potential. Go for it!