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We all want to keep our brains in tip-top shape as we grow older. And there’s a lot of common advice out there on how to do that: getting enough sleep every night, eating well and exercising regularly, doing puzzles, reading, journaling, avoiding hard drugs and drinking in moderation.
In the past few years, researchers and scientists have identified a group of people who they call “SuperAgers.” SuperAgers are people in their 70s and 80s who have the mental capacity of people 20 to 30 years younger. At different universities, like Northwestern and Harvard, SuperAgers are being studied to see how everyone’s brain health can be improved.
“SuperAgers are required to have outstanding episodic memory — the ability to recall everyday events and past personal experiences — but then SuperAgers just need to have at least average performance on the other cognitive tests,” explained cognitive neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, a professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine within Northwestern University.
For the past 14 years, the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program has kept track of a group of SuperAgers. In this program, 3D scans are taken of the SuperAger’s brain and then cognitive testing and brain scans are repeated annually. And researchers have seen some interesting results.
SuperAger brains contain something called “super neurons,” which are cells in the memory part of the brain that were larger in SuperAgers than in the brains of their cognitively-average peers. These “super neurons” also don’t have “tau tangles,” which are found in brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, said, “The remarkable observation that SuperAgers showed larger neurons than their younger peers may imply that large cells were present from birth and are maintained structurally throughout their lives.”
Even though SuperAgers clearly have some biological advantages, Northwestern has also noted some common habits of SuperAgers, which anyone can do to keep their brain as young as possible. For example, SuperAgers typically live an active lifestyle, continuously mentally challenge themselves, stay social and allow themselves to indulge every once in a while.