When we think of aging, we often think of cognitive decline. We think of struggling to find the right word or forgetting where we left our glasses (on top of our head). But cognitive decline isn’t a “given.” And it can be slowed down and sometimes prevented with certain lifestyle changes and habits.
How Does Aging Affect the Brain?
Researchers note that aging is typically associated with atrophy. We usually think of atrophy in terms of muscle strength. The brain is often referred to as a muscle because we know brain shape, size and capacity can change. Just like we can learn new things, build the brain and strengthen certain areas of the brain, the brain can also atrophy, just like the muscles in our legs or arms.
Dr. Claudia Kawas of University of California (UC), Irvine says, “Atrophy is the strongest correlate of age.” As the brain shrinks over time, memory, focus and processing can all be affected.
This is what leads to searching all over for our phone while holding it in our hand!
Yet we know that a group of adults 80+ years old have less shrinkage and decline than most of us. These are the so-called SuperAgers.
What is a Cognitive SuperAger?
According to Northwestern Medicine, a SuperAger is someone who is 80 years or older and who keeps their cognitive function comparable to someone middle-aged. Simply put, a SuperAger 80-year-old body with the brain function of a 50-year-old.
That sounds pretty compelling.
What Are the Top 3 Common Habits of SuperAgers?
Many lifestyle habits have been linked to aging well, and SuperAgers share many of these habits such as:
Remaining physically active
Researchers at Harvard Medical School recommend exercising at a challenging level (which is different for everyone) for 20-40 minutes, 3-5 times per week. This will help keep your aerobic capacity stronger, which is linked to aging well and high among SuperAgers. Before starting an exercise program, see your doctor to determine your aerobic capacity and V02 levels to begin a healthy exercise for where you’re at and where you want to go.
Maintaining social connection and relationships
According to neuroscientist Dr. Emily Rogalski of Northwestern University (and who leads the study of SuperAgers), SuperAgers have strong social connections and high-quality, satisfying relationships. In fact, one study found that cognitive decline in seniors with closer social connections was 70% slower than those who were socially isolated. Friends aren’t just mood boosters but brain boosters, too.
Continuing the habit of learning and growing
Keeping your mind active is linked with greater brain health and less cognitive decline. Quilting, photography, reading, learning a new skill or sport are all ways to engage the brain in retirement. The brain’s ability to learn continues throughout our lifespan and helps keep the brain healthy and fit.
Next Steps for Brain Health
Keeping fit and healthy is truly a holistic concept. It isn’t just lifting weights or doing crossword puzzles, and mental health and fitness can be enjoyable and engaging. Keeping our bodies active, our brains engaged and our sense of connection rich are all ways to keep our brains healthy as we age. Healthy brains and bodies mean higher quality of life for ourselves and our the people who love us.
Next steps for better brain health include:
- Develop a fitness plan that fits your needs, health and lifestyle. See your doctor to assess your current levels and create a plan with a fitness expert that meets your needs and gets you moving in safe and effective ways.
- Reach out and connect with friends, family or neighbors. Make new friends. Join a new club or organization. Connection is key, and having a circle of supportive friends makes a huge difference in healthy aging.
- Make a plan for learning something new and engaging your brain. Make a list of skills you’ve always wanted to develop or activities you’ve always wanted to try. Is there a vacation spot you’d like to explore? The point is to enjoy the process of learning and engage in new and novel activities.
It’s possible to slow decline and prevent further decline by making changes to how we live. By engaging more, becoming more active and reaching out for connection, our brains feel better, and we feel better overall.
How can you make a change today for a better, healthier brain tomorrow?
How can you become a SuperAger?
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