When was the first time you felt concern that you might be losing some of your brain power? For me, it was one weekend when, within a 24-hour time period, I lost my keys, couldn’t immediately remember the best route to my favorite restaurant and left my wallet in my shopping cart as I departed the grocery store. I was only in my thirties, and I got scared I was beginning to lose it. The string of things that happened that weekend was an anomaly, but it got me thinking about aging and memory.
Some loss of memory is inevitable with aging.
I bet you know older people who are sharp in terms of their memory and don’t exhibit any mental difficulties experienced by most of us. There are even those whose abilities match or exceed those of much younger people. These are the superagers.
Superagers are older people whose memory and attention aren’t merely above average for their age, but are more on par with healthy, active twenty-five-year-olds. Research on a group of these accelerated individuals has shown that a particular part of their brain is more developed than it is in regular older people their age.
There has been research in recent years aimed at understanding how some older adults retain youthful thinking abilities and the brain circuits that support those abilities. One of the most recent studies conducted at Harvard Medical School consisted of enrolling forty adults ages sixty to eighty — seventeen of whom performed as well as adults four to five decades younger on memory tests, and twenty-three with normal results for their age group — and forty one adults ages eighteen to thirty-five.
“Previous research on super-aging has compared people over age eighty-five to those who are middle-aged,” said Alexandra Touroutoglou of Harvard, who co-authored the research. “Our study is exciting because we focused on people around or just after typical retirement age — mostly in their sixties and seventies — and investigated those who could remember as well as people in their twenties.”
In very unscientific terms, the parts of the brains in superagers responsible for communication, memory, and identifying information that is important were thicker than in other older adults. The thicker these regions of the cortex, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it twenty minutes later.
What activities will help you become a superager?
If you asked me this question, I’d authoritatively answer it was brain teasers and games like the Sudoku, games that I love and play frequently, that help you excel at memory and cognitive issues. But this isn’t true.
Your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age involve working hard at something. Much of the research to date shows that the critical brain regions get thicker when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort was physical or mental. So, it’s not just doing something stimulating like crossword puzzles, card games, or even some of the tasks on those online brain game websites that guarantee to keep you sharp.
Trying to play a new instrument or taking an online college course are good examples of tasks with sufficient oomph to keep things activated at a higher level.
This kind of strenuous mental activity tends to make you feel pretty bad: tired, frustrated, stymied. It turns out the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. What comes to mind is the idea of pushing past the temporary discomfort of intense effort to improve another part of your body … like going to the gym or working out.
In general, in the United States, we cultivate happiness by valuing ease and relaxation and less stressful mental activities as the way to retire and get old. This is not the path to superaging, however, because brain tissue gets thinner if it’s not pushed … pushed hard. Thus, the use it or lose it saying, which really applies for seniors.
I don’t know about you, but the next time I’m thinking of binge-watching some mindless program, I’ll hopefully change my mind and try juggling.