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Could you be a super-ager? Learn how to train your brain

While most of us are prone to a few memory lapses here and there, one group of adults defying the normal cognitive decline that comes with old age are super agers.

Super agers are a unique group of people aged between 70-80 whose memories are typically as sharp as people 30 years younger than them. Their superior cognitive abilities have fascinated researchers for years and led to a multitude of studies trying to uncover the secret to their brain power and whether others in a similar age group could tap into their skills. 

Super agers display superior cognitive abilities compared to other people their age when measured on factors such as memory recall and typically have better language skills and are more resilient to stress. One study by researchers at Northwestern University analysed the brains of super-agers and found some parts of the brain – particularly the cortex which is important for memory, attention and thinking abilities – were even bigger than the same parts in middle-aged brains.

“It’s probably a combination of genes, the environment, their early lifestyles and a dose of good luck,” Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says. “There are some reasons, some beyond our control, that people are either super agers or if they get diseases, they progress more slowly and have a milder dose of it.”

While not everyone can be a super ager, Woodward says it’s absolutely possible for people to improve memory, reasoning and general knowledge as they age. 

“We can make our minds sharper if we do the appropriate training. In fact, the training seems to be specific, by which I mean we improve whatever area we’re specifically training,” he says. “You can’t assume that if you train, for instance, your language skills that you’ll be better at arithmetic. You have to train that specifically.”

While there are many types of brain exercises available, Woodward says the most important thing is to be consistent with your practice. 

“What matters is that you do it and you do it regularly,” he says. “Just doing the crosswords, the Sudokus, the unscrambling of the nine letter words in the paper, alone may not be enough.”

To really push your brain further and improve cognition, try testing yourself in areas you’re not always comfortable with. For example, a person who’s good with numbers could benefit from learning a new language or someone who’s naturally better with words could gain more from doing numerical puzzles or playing an instrument. The trick is finding the right balance so you’re challenging yourself, but not doing tasks that end up frustrating you. 

“We’re more likely to persist with something if we enjoy it and we see some rewards from it. If you absolutely hate maths maybe don’t go in that direction,” Woodward says.

And, while it can be easy to give up on an activity that’s too challenging, part of the reason researchers believe super agers have better memory function is because they persist when tasks get difficult. Persevering trains the brain in areas that a person isn’t as comfortable with and people usually see benefits within months. 

“You may not even notice the benefits, because you tend to not notice things that are changing very slowly,” Woodward explains. “It may be that the only benefit is that you’ve achieved a slower rate of decline in that area, but that’s still a benefit.”

Staying social and participating in group activities has also been shown to benefit overall brain health and is a key theme in the lives of many super agers. Everything from singing in a choir to playing sports with friends or even catching up with someone for a weekly walk around the neighbourhood are beneficial for brain health.  

In fact, one study led by scientists at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found super-agers typically have a close group of friends who they see with regularly, leading experts to conclude that staying social can help keep our minds sharp as we age. 

At the end of the day, while not everyone can be a super ager, putting your brain health first will give you the best chance of delaying cognitive decline and keeping your mind sharper and healthier for longer.  

Content created in consultation with dementia expert Associate Professor Michael Woodward.