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The SuperAger Generation

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The tougher the challenge, the better for your brain.

A new study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brains of active older adults, or “superagers” – defined as people aged 80 or older with memory performance equivalent to or better than healthy people twenty or even thirty years younger. The brain regions of superagers (a mean age of 67.8) were compared to those of both younger adults (mean age of 24.5) and typical older adults (66.2).

The results were surprising. While researchers expected the brain regions that impact memory and attention in superager adults to be thicker than the typical older adult group, they were surprised to see those regions in superagers were indistinguishable from the brain regions of the younger adults. Superagers, the study reveals, have the memory and attention equivalent to healthy, active 25-year-olds.

That begs the question: how can we become superagers?

The definitive answer to that is still to be determined, but researchers suggest that working hard at something could be the magic bullet. Data does exist, according to the study authors, that shows people who perform difficult tasks have increased activity in the brain regions that affect memory and attention.

In other words, working could be keeping your brain young.

Doing so means doing more than simple brain games, the study authors say. In fact, evidence suggests the more challenging the task is to the brain, the more positive impact such activity has on brain function. In fact,

  • The Massachusetts study shows that superagers have what the study authors call “tenacity and the will to persevere in the face of challenges” suggesting that those who remain actively engaged in work and personal life could have health memories as they age.
  • A Northwestern University study of superagers (those who were able to pass the study’s rigorous memory testing) revealed no signs of significant atrophy in the superagers’ brain regions that control memory, attention, language, and thinking abilities.

If you want to be a superager, you have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

That’s where pre-retirement and post-retirement careers can really make a difference in how well we age. Many of us, seeking to continue contributing to an industry that we’ve been part of for decades, choose new ways to remain engaged. Maybe it’s a part-time position, or maybe it’s volunteer work that pushes us to complete complex tasks. Whatever it is, the research is there – staying mentally engaged and challenged is good for our cognitive health.

The transition from working to retirement is jarring, to say the least. But it doesn’t have to be. By challenging ourselves with a second career or other ways to challenge our minds, we can become our own version of a superager.

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