Most of us fear the cognitive decline assumed to come with aging—more specifically, losing our memory, motivation, and focus.
But for some people, as they get older, 80 is the new 50.
Research shows a fortunate cohort seems to escape the type of memory-related brain decline historically associated with aging, at least according to their brain scans: introducing the SuperAgers.
The term originated roughly 15 years ago at Northwestern University as doctors began studying successful aging, which at the time did not have a formal definition, says Dr. Emily Rogalski, director of the SuperAging Research Initiative.
As people join the 80-plus cohort at exceedingly fast rates, new research examining brain health has begun to fascinate scientists and the public alike.
“There has been this notion out there that cognitive decline is inevitable, and that the only thing that can happen is performance goes down as we age,” Rogalski tells Fortune, who also serves as the associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “While that might be true…there are people who are living long and living well.”
SuperAgers are people over age 80 who maintain memory capabilities consistent with people in their 50s and 60s—or about 20 to 30 years younger than their age, according to Rogalski and her team at Northwestern (although other researchers have defined it as people around retirement age, or over the age of 65 who have more youthful brains).
Changes in memory can be signs of cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, so understanding the brains of SuperAgers may offer insightful takeaways on these diseases, Rogalski says.
While researchers haven’t been able to calculate precisely how many SuperAgers live among us, the trait is relatively rare. Less than 10% of people Rogalski studied who thought they had strong memories met their SuperAger criteria, which focuses on the size of the brain.
SuperAgers’ brains shrink at slower rates
Memory peaks between ages 30 and 40, and overall brain volume begins to decline between ages 50 and 80, Rogalski says, although everyone’s brains differ.
Research shows SuperAgers’ brains shrink at slower rates than their peers of the same age, specifically maintaining volume in areas associated with memory and focus. SuperAgers’ anterior cingulate is thicker than their counterparts, meaning it contains more neurons. A loss of neurons in this area, or abnormal development, Rogalski says is particularly associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s along with other social development disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“They somehow resisted the loss of the size of those parts of the brain. Something about them helped them not experience that shrinkage,” Dr. Bradford Dickerson, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School who has examined brain scans of SuperAgers, specializing in behavioral neurology and memory disorders, tells Fortune. “There are people who do not exhibit what is thought of as typical age-related memory decline. They still have abilities that are consistent with those of much younger adults.”
Youth have “very distinctive activation in their brains,” Dickerson says, meaning they can more clearly associate a name with a face or a picture with a name. The exchange of information between different parts of the brain in SuperAgers resembles these more youthful brains, which allows SuperAgers to maintain confident recollection.
“The activations within the brain become less distinctive as we get older, but the SuperAgers maintained that very distinctive activation,” he says. “[It] potentially helps them retrieve those memories in a more high fidelity way that would likely give them greater confidence that they remember the thing accurately.”
‘Resilient and adaptable’
So what do SuperAgers have in common, and can you become one?
While this field of research is relatively new and a mixture of genetics and lifestyle factors could play a role, Rogalski and Dickerson have come to similar conclusions.
“Stay engaged with life, and challenge your brain…Our brains really like new and novel things, and new learning and new interactions are important and essential to that,” Rogalski says. “We see that the SuperAgers tend to be pretty resilient and adaptable, so being open to new opportunities is a theme that seems to run through this group.”
And the influence someone’s attitude and level of motivation has on their brain health makes Dickerson wonder whether optimism and grit fit into the mold.
“Do SuperAgers tend to approach a difficult task as a challenge as opposed to a threat? And if so, is that part of what leads them to engage in a more persistent way?” he asks. “Ultimately, that might give us a clue about what’s going on with these people.”
The strength of SuperAgers’ social ties
Rogalski is researching the qualities of SuperAgers to understand better how to implement potential preventative measures in achieving optimal brain health. The Northwestern SuperAging Research Program is taking volunteers to join their research initiative. She tracks SuperAgers’ levels of socialization, activity, and other lifestyle factors to understand any patterns.
Thus far, she found that SuperAgers maintain strong relationships—a finding of little surprise as social isolation and loneliness put people at risk for heart disease and early mortality.
“One recommendation or actionable step would be to maintain that social connectedness,” Rogalski says.
Health span vs. life span
Rogalksi hopes her research highlights the distinction between “health span” and “life span,” as it focuses less on the number of years SuperAgers live. Her work instead illustrates how people can focus on achieving optimal brain health and quality of life.
“There are a lot of negative expectations associated with aging,” she says, as people battle rhetoric around “anti-aging” and how to avoid the realities of getting older.
While genetics, nutrition, exercise, and socialization may all contribute to how well we age, Rogalski asks us to consider where brain health and resilience fit into the conversation. Knowledge about how SuperAgers live may also allow people to challenge the stereotypes around aging—that it means losing cognitive function and, therefore, not being able to contribute to society as greatly.
“[Research on SuperAgers] gives us, individually, opportunities to change our personal expectations around aging and potentially live into our fuller potential and to value our aging colleagues, our aging members of society, a bit more.”