Are You a Super-Ager?

active seniorsAre you someone in your 80s or older whose memory recall seems to be as good or even better than people decades younger than you? If you are, you’re in a relatively rare category of people known as “super-agers” — people who can easily recall things from many years ago with exceptional clarity along with the everyday things many of us tend to forget. If you’re a super-ager, you also tend to be swifter and display lower anxiety and depression than typical older adults. Why does super-aging happen for some elders and not for others?

How the Average Brain Declines

On average, a person’s brain declines in volume and weight by about 5 percent per decade, beginning after age 40. Age-related brain shrinkage tends to affect the brain regions involved with learning and memory, such as the frontal lobe and hippocampus. A reduced brain size is also less likely to maintain robust communication among its different parts. “These brain changes can make it more difficult to learn and process new information, recall names and words, and focus on completing tasks,” says Yuta Katsumi, a Harvard professor of neurology.

But the brains of super-agers shrink more slowly — almost half as fast, according to some research. Why this occurs is not fully understood. “There could be a genetic component that makes these people’s brains be more resilient to natural shrinkage or shrink at a slower rate, but the difference also may be associated with lifestyle habits,” says Katsumi. “It’s also possible some people are born with exceptional memory, so they can still maintain higher-than-normal brain function even when exposed to natural decline.”

Meet a Super-Ager

An example of a super-ager is Carol Siegler, an 85-year-old who possesses a brain as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger. Despite volunteering and working out at the gym several days each week, socializing frequently with friends and family, reading all types of books, and doing daily crossword puzzles, she feels bored and restless. She recently enrolled to be part of an elite group called the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program, affiliated with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. They have been studying seniors with superior memories for more than 14 years and have published some helpful research on the subject.

Study Examines Super-Agers and Why They Possess Exceptional Memory Recall

According to a recent study, some super-agers, similar to Carol, have been seen to avoid the natural deterioration of memory that most of us experience with age. A paper published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience helps shed light on what’s so special about their brains. The research was conducted on 119 octogenarians from Spain: 64 super-agers and 55 older adults with normal memory abilities for their age. The participants completed multiple tests assessing their memory, motor, and verbal skills; underwent brain scans and blood draws; and answered questions about their lifestyle and behaviors.

Study Findings:

  • Most people’s brains shrink as they grow older. In super-agers, a part of the brain responsible for thinking, decision-making, and memory remains much thicker and shrinks more slowly than those of people in their 50s and 60s.
  • When compared to average agers, the super-agers had similar levels of IQ, so the differences that have been observed are not just due to intelligence.
  • The MRIs of the super-agers’ brain scans showed:
    • more gray matter (the brain tissue vital for normal functioning) in the parts of the brain involved in memory and movement. Their overall gray matter was also seen to degenerate more slowly over the 5-year follow-up period than in the typical older adults.
    • more volume in areas of the brain important for memory, such as the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.
    • better preserved connectivity between regions in the front of the brain that are involved in cognition.
    • Both the super-agers and the control group showed minimal signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains.
    • Super-agers’ brains looked more like 50- or 60-year-olds’ brains than their 80-year-old peers. When followed over several years, the super-agers’ brains shrunk at a slower rate than average.
  • There were a few differences in health and lifestyle behaviors between the two groups in the study.
    • The super-agers had slightly better physical health, both in terms of blood pressure and glucose metabolism.
    • Super-agers also performed better on a test of mobility. They didn’t report doing more exercise at their current age than the typical older adults, but they were more active in middle age.
    • Super-agers also reported better mental health.
  • Super-agers tend to have large social groups. Studies have shown that regular social engagement is a great brain booster. The opposite is also true. Social isolation is linked to lower volumes of gray matter in brain regions related to cognition.
  • Super-agers tend to be positive people.
  • Continuous learning is associated with better memory.

How to Become a Super-Ager

Because continuous learning is associated with super-aging, anything that can stimulate your mind and engage you to learn new information might help you become a super-ager.

  • Focus on topics that interest you. Another study published May 14, 2019, in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that adults ages 59 to 79 who studied a second language for just four months improved the neural connectivity in the brain regions responsible for attention, working memory, and language processing.
  • Other examples include signing up for an online class, learning to play an instrument, volunteering for a favorite cause, or mentoring a youth. Even playing video games may improve memory in older adults, according to a 2020 study in Behavioural Brain Research.
  • Many so-called “superfoods” are high in antioxidants and other nutrients, which a growing body of research has shown help reduce inflammation and protect cells from disease-causing damage.
  • Super-agers are quite active. Research has suggested that exercise may help maintain and possibly improve cognitive function, even if you begin later in life. Aerobic exercise, strength training, and even yoga are all connected to better memory among older adults. Doing a variety of activities can help you stay motivated. Consider finding several you enjoy and making them part of your lifestyle.
  • Past research has revealed an abundance of spindle neurons, a rare type of neuron linked to memory capability, in the brains of super-agers. This means excellent memories may partly be the product of a biological lottery as much as they are a reflection of their lifestyle choices, social connections, or outlook on life.

If You’re Not a Super-Ager, Be Sure to Plan Ahead!

Even super-agers should have up-to-date estate plans and long-term care plans, because you never know what might happen. Most of you readers who are 80 and older are not super-agers, and your memories may be declining as you get older. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with any type of memory loss or other cognitive impairment and you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your planning documents reviewed in the past 3 to 5 years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Among other services, we offer peace of mind through our four levels of lifetime protection planning:

Level 1 — Incapacity Planning is mostly about protecting your assets from lifetime probate, also known as guardianship and conservatorship. Incapacity planning is part of Estate Planning and is done by Estate Planning attorneys and Elder Law attorneys, but, if you’re in your 80s, you should be sure to use an experienced Elder Law attorney and not just an Estate Planning attorney, as Estate Planning attorneys do not focus on many vital issues associated with the potential future need for long-term care. For example, a general power of attorney done by an experienced Elder Law attorney will typically have comprehensive Medicaid asset protection powers built into the power of attorney, whereas these powers are most often absent from a power of attorney prepared by an Estate Planning attorney who does not practice Elder Law.

Level 2 — Revocable Living Trust Estate Planning is about using a revocable living trust to protect your assets from the lifetime probate nightmare of guardianship and conservatorship and from the after-death probate nightmare that occurs when you use just a Last Will and Testament as your only Estate Planning tool. A revocable living trust is a good Estate Planning tool and is offered by almost all Estate Planning lawyers and Elder Care lawyers but is often not the right trust for you if you are over 65 and concerned about protecting your assets from the potentially devastating expenses of long-term care, an issue that affects 70 percent of people over age 65, yet a concern that most planning attorneys simply ignore.

Level 3 — Living Trust Plus® Asset Protection Planning provides protection from probate (similar to a revocable living trust) plus protection from lawsuits (just last week I met with a woman who had a $2 million judgment entered against her for being found at fault in a car accident) plus protection from the potentially devastating expenses of long-term care, whether provided via in-home health care, assisted living at home or in an assisted living facility, or nursing care expenses, whether provided at home or in a nursing home. The Living Trust Plus® protects your assets from all of these creditors and protects your assets in order to help you gain eligibility for Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits if you meet the military service requirements and protects your assets from catastrophic nursing home expenses by allowing you to qualify for Medicaid.

Level 4 – Life Care Planning, Medicaid Asset Protection, and Veterans Asset Protection provides comprehensive planning and filing services, often at times of crisis, though this type of planning can be done anytime someone is beyond the first step of the Elder Care Continuum aka the Aging Continuum.

Please contact us whenever you are ready to ensure that you have the appropriate level of planning:

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg, VA Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville, MD Estate Planning Attorney: 301-519-8041
Washington, DC Elder Care Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.