SuperAgers-A Study in Resilience and Optimal Functioning

SuperAgers are people who, at 80 years of age or more, exhibit signs of cognitive functioning similar to that of people who are up to three decades younger. These people are of great interest to scientists and behaviorists in the hopes of uncovering how, why, and what contributes to their cognitive resilience. Typically, as the brain ages it loses volume, has reduced circulatory functioning, with lower levels of neurotransmitters and hormones—often resulting in impaired memory and cognitive functioning.  SuperAgers lose brain volume at a slower rate and exhibit brain volume in the areas of memory, motivation, and attention similar to that of people in middle age. This delayed loss of brain volume may afford SuperAgers some protection against dementia. Interestingly, the research shows that the SuperAgers’ brain may at times show pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease; however, they did not exhibit any signs or symptoms of the disease.

The data suggest that SuperAgers do not necessarily have higher IQ’s or educational level than their peers, but what they do demonstrate is a willingness to wrestle with problem solving, facing challenges as a matter of course in their lives. They engage with new material and unfamiliar experiences all while being adept at identifying and maintaining social connections. The brain region involved in social relationships is considerably larger in SuperAgers as revealed through autopsy. Further data demonstrate that SuperAgers emerge despite traumatic experiences throughout their lives such as the Holocaust or the early death of a loved one. Practices that support resilience and coping may contribute to a SuperAgers’ ability to move forward and continue to function optimally.

Physical SuperAgers have cardiorespiratory capabilities that are similar to those of people who are decades younger. It is generally accepted that people lose 1% of their aerobic capacity per year after the age of 30; however, SuperAgers have a maximal oxygen consumption that rivals that of people 30 years their junior. It is also clear that there is an inverse relationship between oxygen consumption capability (gained through aerobic activity) and cardiovascular disease, dementia and falls leading to death. Challenging mental and physical activities are correlated with resilience in the brain and the body—add in the forward-facing pursuit of social connections and we may find our way towards aging well!