4 Key Habits of Super Agers

Why do some people live disease-free well into their 80s and beyond? It’s more than luck. Find out what they have in common.

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Updated on October 3, 2022.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth lived for 96-years without developing cancer, dementia, or other chronic health issue often associated with aging. She’s not alone, but rather part of a rare group of people known as “super agers” who live relatively well and independently into very old age while retaining the cognitive function of someone decades younger.

What may set Her Majesty—and others like her—apart from others: Their brains.

Brains tend to shrink with age. Typically, adults may lose about 2.24 percent of their brain volume each year. Brain shrinkage is usually most notable in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus as well as the cerebral cortex—parts of the brain involved in complex thinking.

As people get older, a decline in neurotransmitters, dropping hormone levels, wear-and-tear of blood vessels, and worse blood sugar circulation can all affect thinking and the ability to concentrate, remember information, and learn new things.

Super agers, by comparison, only lose about 1 percent of their brain volume annually. So, by the age of 80, a super ager’s brain looks and functions like someone much younger. They also perform better on memory tests than their peers.

There is also evidence that super agers’ brains have a higher density of certain brain cells called von Economo neurons than younger adults. These cells are associated with social intelligence and awareness.

There are two schools of thought on how this can happen. One theory suggests there is a cognitive reserve, or some brains are simply stronger to begin with, and better able to ward off the effects of aging and disease. The other theory focuses on brain maintenance, or the idea that some brains can adapt and keep going—despite the ravages of time and illness.

What else super agers have that others don’t

Some may say the Queen was able to live so well for so long because she was privileged. Her every need was met, which protected her health and well-being. Or maybe she and other super agers are simply lucky? They hit the longevity jackpot.

Some people do, in fact, win the genetic lottery. Longevity tends to run in families. Up until the age of 80, about 25 percent of the variation in person’s life span can be pegged to their DNA. That means things you can control, such as your diet and lifestyle, account for the remaining 70 to 80 percent. But by the age of 80, your genes matter a whole lot more. The truth is, when it comes to longevity, super agers may have a genetic edge over everyone else.  

Scientists have pinpointed various genes associated with longevity that may be involved in the regulation of blood fat levels, inflammation, the immune system, and the cardiovascular system. These genes may help people live longer by reducing their risk for chronic health issues, like heart disease.

But that doesn’t mean you have no control. There is much more to the story than your DNA. Researchers have been studying super agers to uncover their secrets. And while these investigations are ongoing, there is a lot we do know. Learning the secrets of super agers may not guarantee that you’ll join their ranks, but it could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Super agers—what’s their secret?

In the U.S., adults live to be about 76-years old, on average. Scientists have been closely examining the traits and habits of those who live a lot longer—without serious health issues.

Surprisingly, they’ve found that education, income, or career are not things they have in common. But they do tend to share similar lifestyle habits, which have a protective effect against some chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Among these habits: not smoking, maintaining a normal weight—and effectively managing stress.

Stress is a big culprit when it comes to aging and wear-and-tear on the body. In addition to DNA, stress plays a role in the length of telomeres—protective caps on the ends of DNA strands. When cells divide, telomeres get a bit shorter. Fortunately, they can be replenished by an enzyme called telomerase.

Chronic stress (which can trigger high levels of the stress hormone cortisol) however, can lower the body’s supply of telomerase inhibiting this protective effect. If telomeres get too short, cells can’t divide, and they may trigger inflammation. So, the body can’t repair its tissues and the risk for chronic disease increases.

So, taking steps to cope with stress, finding ways to be more resilient, and making a point to let the little things slide can really make a difference in your long-term health and longevity.

Consider the adage: Use it or lose it

Aside from some genetic advantages and the ability to keep stress at bay, research shows that super agers have four habits in common that anyone could try to implement in their own life.

They continue to challenge themselves. Tackling difficult tasks or learning new skills, such as playing a new instrument, taking a class, or speaking another language, is something super agers have in common. They never stop putting their minds to the test or stepping outside their comfort zone—habits which may be connected to mental sharpness over time. Researchers suggest continuously stimulating the brain in new or challenging ways helps preserve brain tissue and function.

They are physically active. Ever hear of VO2 max? It’s a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. It’s most often used by professional or elite athletes to assess their performance level.

But researchers have also found that it may be a strong and independent predictor of all-cause and disease-specific death. By increasing your oxygen intake and improving your VO2 max (through consistent activity that gets longer or harder), you can help your body perform at its best.

As you age, it’s important to keep moving. To be sure, being active and getting regular exercise is essential for healthy aging by helping you maintain a healthy weight (which can, in turn, prevent a slew of chronic diseases) and keep your muscles strong (which can help prevent falls and keep you mobile and independent).

They have strong social connections. Super agers report having more friends and strong family connections, which jibes with studies that link high psychological well-being with a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

They don’t see their age as a barrier. Super agers don’t allow their age to define them or prevent them from finding purpose or value in their interests, goals, or priorities. It’s never too late to make healthy changes, try something new, pursue different challenges, or do the things you love.

What you eat matters, too

Although not all Super Agers adhere to the same eating plans, a growing pile of research suggests the Mediterranean diet is linked with greater longevity and a reduced risk for all-cause mortality. The diet is associated with longer telomeres (remember those caps on the ends of DNA strands that keep cells dividing properly).

This diet—which focuses on a wide range of fruit and vegetables as well as some healthy fats like olive oil or nuts, whole grains, and lean protein—also provides a powerful dose of antioxidants (that neutralize free radicals and quell inflammation) and other essential nutrients, including fiber. And it provides those benefits while limiting sugar, salt, and saturated fats associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health issues.

Article sources open article sources

U.S. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive super agers defy typical age-related decline in brainpower, Jul 31, 2020.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Is longevity determined by genetics? Jul 11, 2022.
Northwestern Medicine. 4 Habits of Super Agers. Accessed Oct 1, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life Expectancy in the U.S. Dropped for the Second Year in a Row in 2021. Aug 31, 2022.
Barbara Strasser, Martin Burtscher. Survival of the fittest: VO2max, a key predictor of longevity?. Front. Biosci. (Landmark Ed) 2018, 23(8), 1505–1516.
Laukkanen JA, Zaccardi F, Khan H, Kurl S, Jae SY, Rauramaa R. Long-term Change in Cardiorespiratory Fitness and All-Cause Mortality: A Population-Based Follow-up Study. Mayo Clin Proc. 2016 Sep;91(9):1183-8.
Harvard Medical School. What does it take to be a super-ager? May 1, 2017.

 

 

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