In the eternal search for the secrets to longevity, scientists are now looking to Super Agers. They want to discover what characteristics and lifestyle habits these extraordinary octogenarians share that give them the mental and physical capacity of their decades-younger counterparts.
Scientists believe that most people reach their mental and physical peak in their 30s, to be followed by a slow and steady decline into old age and eventual death. Except that Super Agers aren’t abiding by these rules. They’re ageing at a much slower pace and teams from various academic disciplines are desperately trying to find out why.
The last few years have seen a growth in research on Super Agers. Findings so far suggest that by the age of 80, Super Agers have the mental and physical capacity of people 20 or 30 years younger. Scientists believe that identifying commonalities between these remarkable octogenarians may hold the key to learning more about healthy ageing and how to prevent age-related illnesses like dementia.
Super Agers could hold the key to alleviating the ageing population crisis
Since the dawn of time, we’ve been obsessed with finding the secret to eternal life.
And while we haven’t yet found it, in the past century we have managed to more than double the global average life expectancy.
Of course, huge disparities still remain when comparing the life expectancies of citizens from the world’s poorest and richest countries; people living in the Central African Republic (CAR) are expected to live until only 53 years of age, while those living in Japan live on average until the age of 85.
Longer life expectancies can bring many opportunities, not only for older people and their families but also for the societies in which they live.
The additional years that we have gained over the last century have provided people with the opportunity to follow new passions and even new careers, long after retirement age. Take Joe Biden for example who, at the age of 79 became the oldest president in American history.
However, the extent to which people can take advantage of the opportunities presented to them by an extended life expectancy, and how much they can actively contribute well into their later years, heavily depends on one crucial factor: their health.
According to a UN World Population Ageing Report from 2019, by 2050 1 in 6 people in the world will be over the age of 65, and they will outnumber children.
The rapidly ageing population worldwide presents us with numerous unprecedented challenges: a shifted disease burden, rises in health and long-term care expenditure, fewer working-age people in the economy, a strain on pension systems, and problems with old-age income security.
The social, economic, and physical changes that come with ageing are potentially compounded by the debilitating effects of multiple, acute, and chronic diseases.
So, with a looming and rapidly escalating population crisis on our hands, where people may be living longer but those extra years may not necessarily be fit and healthy ones, it is of paramount importance to uncover what makes someone a Super Ager and what shared habits or traits are linked to becoming one.
What is a Super Ager?
A Super Ager is defined as someone in their 80s or older who has the cognitive or physical abilities of someone 20 or 30 years younger.
MRIs on Super Agers demonstrate that this cohort shows significantly less brain loss than the average for their age group. Researchers think that this slower brain loss may be protective against dementia and age-related illnesses.
How do you become a Super Ager?
While research is still ongoing in this area, what we do know so far is that continually challenging ourselves and regularly stepping outside our comfort zones may be the key to staying physically and mentally young well into our later years.
Regular physical and mental activity actively reduces the health risks that come with ageing. Intense physical activity increases a person’s aerobic capacity and intense mental activity helps preserve the parts of the brain associated with memory and reasoning.
Common Habits of Super Agers
While genetics play a role in how well we age, as well as other factors like our foetal development, where we grew up, and childhood nutrition and illnesses, there are many other factors well within our control that can help us to lead a healthier and longer life.
So, what are the top three steps you can take to become a Super Ager?
1. Maintain an Active Lifestyle
One of the most important steps you can take on the road to becoming a Super Ager is to stay active and increase your aerobic capacity.
Physical activity improves your oxygen intake which in turn helps your heart stay healthy, strengthens your muscles (which reduces your risk for falls), and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Aerobic capacity is measured as the amount of oxygen taken in and distributed to tissues in a minute expressed as maximum oxygen consumption or V02 max.
On average, we lose 10% of our aerobic capacity every decade after we hit 30. Super Agers consistently score higher on tests that measure their aerobic capacity, with similar capacities to people 30 years younger than themselves.
Data suggests that Super Agers’ increased aerobic capacity comes from exercising, on average, at high intensity for 20 to 45 minutes a day.
2. Embrace Mental Challenges
In addition to supercharged physical health, Super Agers also demonstrate an advanced cognitive function for their age due to less brain cell loss than their contemporaries.
This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with IQ or educational levels. But it may be all about how Super Agers approach problems.
Some research indicates that Super Agers are more willing as a group to step out of their comfort zones and endure discomfort when approaching new challenges, whether this is something as simple as completing a sudoku puzzle, to a more advanced problem such as learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language.
3. Stay Socially Connected
Even before the term Super Ager began to be bandied about, we’d been hearing about these miracle agers from studies such as the Harvard Study of Adult Development – a longitudinal research study that’s been gathering data for almost 80 years.
The Harvard team found that in addition to more obvious factors linked to healthy ageing, such as an active lifestyle, a healthy diet, and not smoking or consuming too much alcohol, more surprising was the strong correlation between ageing and the strength of the participants’ social networks.
It appears that embracing community and having strong relationships with your family, friends, and the wider community can actively contribute to you leading a healthier and happier life.
Put simply, improving your social ties can help shield you from life’s challenges while also maximising your mental and physical health.
Prepare to be frustrated – don’t give up
We all know that perseverance and patience are important attributes in overcoming problems and facing new tasks.
The one thing that appears to separate Super Agers from other people their age is their resilience; their willingness to go that extra mile to overcome challenges.
The key then, to open the door to not only longevity but one that is healthy, happy, and productive, seems to be to take consistent steps. Every single day, no matter how big or small, just as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other.
And in doing so, in creating those daily habits, we condition ourselves to keep on walking, and perhaps, to keep on pushing that little bit further. That little bit harder.
As in everything in life, it really does come down to finding balance. Arguably, the hardest of all things to find, and one that can take a lifetime to reach.
The trick is to not give up.