As lifespans continue to get longer it’s becoming more important than ever to understand how humanity will maintain its mental capabilities in old age. Some scientists have been studying so-called “Superagers” in order to understand what steps are necessary to keep a brain functioning at its best.
The term “Superager” was first defined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam to categorise people whose memory and attention span isn’t just better than average for their age but is closer to that of a healthy 25-year-old. Along with a team of researchers, Lisa Feldman Barrett has been studying superagers and recently published findings that might help us better understand how this group differs from the norm.
Barrett writes in the New York Times:
Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.
What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking, such as the lateral prefrontal cortex. However, that’s not what we found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions, such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.
She explains that modern neuroscience has come to understand that regions of the brain that were once believed to be “emotional” are actually major communication hubs that also handle “language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.” Like a muscle, if these regions don’t get a workout they degrade. Researchers found that when these regions of the cortex were thicker, subjects performed much better in tests of memory and attention.
So how do you prepare yourself to be a superager? That’s not entirely certain yet but Barrett says that strenuous work is believed to be the secret. Studies have shown that the specific areas of the brain that need exercise tend to be more active when people are performing difficult mental or physical tasks.
You might think you’ve heard this one before but no, doing crossword puzzles and walking an hour a day is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about dedicating everything you’ve got to a task. It needs to hurt. When these regions of the brain are getting a workout, you’ll feel “tired, stymied, frustrated” and that’s how to know it’s working.
Those who can’t stand the thought of doing a pushup might consider taking an online college course that’s outside of their comfort zone. Those who left the book-learning behind years ago should consider doing triathlons rather than the standard set of reps at the gym. The overachievers out there might think about hiring a physical trainer that speaks a foreign language. Learn the language through conversation while getting ripped.
Until the science is more complete the best chance you have at being a superager is engaging in a complex task that takes concerted dedication. And keep doing that as long as you're alive.