Studies provide fascinating insights into the brains of “super-agers”

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    Klaus Rock
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    A research program on seniors with exceptional memory abilities is causing a stir in the USA. But what habits make seniors “super-agers”?

    Super-ager: In the USA, a new term is causing a stir – and sometimes envy. According to the latest clinical studies, insights into the lives of so-called super-agers could also give people of average disposition hope about their aging process. Super-agers are currently people over 80 who are proven to be mentally fitter than most 50-year-olds. The good news: Many of their habits are easy to adopt.

    Carol Siegler from Chicago is a proud super-ager. After extensive medical examinations and a series of different memory tests, the 85-year-old was accepted into the elite group of the “Northwestern University SuperAging Research Program”.

    Seniors with exceptional memory

    Seniors with exceptional memory abilities have been examined here for over 14 years. Only ten percent of all applicants ultimately pass the tests and meet the necessary participation conditions. The project is being carried out at the Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Diseases at the Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago.

    Siegler goes to the gym several times a week. She works as a volunteer, reads a lot, solves crossword puzzles every day and meets friends regularly. Nevertheless, she often feels restless, she told CNN: “I’m bored. I feel like a Corvette that is only used as a shopping cart.”

    A high-flyer even as a toddler

    Even as a toddler, she not only taught herself to read and write but also to play the piano, she revealed to the US broadcaster. She also learned Hebrew on the side by sitting on her grandfather’s lap and looking at his newspaper with him. “I’ve always had a good memory,” she said. As a child, for example, she knew every possible telephone number by heart.

    Siegler graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went to college. This was followed by a pilot’s license at the age of 23. She later founded a family business that eventually had over 100 employees. At 82, she won the “American Crossword Tournament.” After seeing a TV advertisement, she applied for the Super Ager program. It was a “thrill” to submit the application.

    Brain mass does not disappear in super-agers

    In the in-depth cognitive examinations, applicants over 80 not only have to perform better than “normal” 50-year-olds. “Super-agers must have an exceptionally good memory – both for everyday life and personal experiences from their past,” explains brain researcher Emily Rogalski. She further emphasizes on CNN: “We also make sure that all participants have similar IQs so that the differences we find have nothing to do with intelligence.”

    Years of data analysis of participants’ brain scans show fascinating results: In most people, brain mass decreases as they age. Not so with super agers. Their cerebral cortex remains thick, their brain cells look significantly larger and healthier than those of others. In addition, the brain of a super-ager has three times fewer abnormal protein deposits on nerve cells than that of average people.

    These deposits are typical features of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Super-agers also have a significantly higher number of rare neurocells, which are said to ensure particularly fast communication skills in the brain and strong social intelligence.

    Get out of your comfort zone

    But scientists consider the lifestyle habits of these impressive seniors to be just as revealing as the brain scans of the super-agers. Some of the participants go to the gym every day. Others drink a glass of wine every evening. What they all have in common: great curiosity and an extremely active life. Many work well into old age. Everyone exercises regularly and watches their weight.

    Above all, the seniors consciously challenge themselves mentally again and again. According to the study results, this is not just about traditional Sudoku or crossword puzzles, but rather about dealing with something unknown: such as a new foreign language, a new musical instrument or computer program.

    It is said that those who repeatedly move outside their comfort zone stimulate the brain most effectively. Super-agers specifically look for new, often difficult and sometimes even frustrating areas of learning that they previously had no idea about.

    Just as important for the brain: a lively social life. All super-agers in the university study have close social relationships. Marc Milstein, the author of “The Age-Proof Brain,” confirms: Social contacts could ward off dementia. “Go out!” said the brain researcher on CNBC, “Meet friends for coffee, dinner or go to a party !”

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