Don’t retire - rewire: How super-agers generate new brain cells and networks

Superagers never retire, instead they storm through life taking on tough challenges, building strength and creating new neural networks in the process, says Margaret Jennings.

YOUNG people have superheroes to look up to; older people have ‘superagers’. But while superheroes are fictional characters with superhuman powers, superagers are very real and living among us.

Their powers may not be superhuman, but they have stand-out memories and attention spans much younger than their peers in their 80s and 90s and they have scientists in a flurry trying to pinpoint why this is so.

Scans have shown that superagers (a term coined by Chicago neurologist Marsel Mesulam) lose their brain volume at a much slower rate than average and that their cortex — the outer layer of folded grey matter — is much thicker.

As we live longer the issue now is, how can we live better, longer? These older people could indeed be our superheroes — an inspiring example of how age is not a barrier to engaging fully in life in our later decades.

The probability of most of us reaching those later decades is increasing, so we need to prepare. It is predicted that by 2041 there will be 1.4 million here aged 65 and over, three times more than the older population now. 

Last year’s census confirmed this trajectory, recording a 19% increase in the number of people over the age of 65 since 2011.

Economic and social commentators are controversially arguing that mandatory retirement at 65 will have to be eliminated to allow flexibility for workers to be financially self-sufficient to manage their expanding lifespan, or as government coffers come under strain from what has been termed a ‘pensions time bomb’.

There are also many in their mid-60s and older who would prefer to ‘rewire not retire’ and to continue engaging fully in life, a zeitgeist that is being captured by Dublin-based Dr Edward Kelly, who is spearheading a movement called The Third Act, a programme which aims to support people psychologically transition into their later decades.

“Society has yet to make the adjustment and change its language around retirement and old age. As a result, people are having to make the transition on their own. 

"Current approaches to retirement prepare you for an outmoded world that no longer exists, whereas transition helps you create a life you have yet to live, with longevity ahead,” he says.

People who’ve been attending The Third Act seminars and workshops are not ready to kick back and give up — they are open to exploring new perspectives. They could well be on the way to become superagers.

One thing superagers may all have in common is that they continually challenge themselves, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, who is carrying out research in this area.

“My colleagues and I are investigating whether superagers routinely push past their comfort zone to challenge themselves both mentally and physically,” she tells Feelgood. 

“Pushing yourself — expending effort — often feels unpleasant. We suspect that superagers understand that feeling bad can be good for you, at least in small doses.”

Barrett, also the author of a new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, refers to what she calls the “superager ensemble” — a group of brain regions that are all involved in constructing memory and other tasks and which show up thicker and better connected in those high-performing older people.

“These regions which include the hippocampus, the anterior insula, the midcingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, are important for creating emotions as well, but also for many different human abilities, including — but not limited to — imagining, paying attention, empathy, stress, decision making, social bonding, and so on,” she says.

Whether character traits such as determination and tenacity are linked to the ensemble of brain regions, is “a hypothesis we are studying at the moment,” she adds.

That very tenacity may be what gets those superagers pushing themselves, even when it temporarily hurts, but isn’t that stressful?

“Not all stress is bad,” she says. 

“Your nervous system evolved to expect — and even need — occasional bouts of stress to stay healthy. But persistent stress, with no relief in sight, is harmful to your body and your brain.”

What superagers could well be doing, is finding what Dr Sabina Brennan calls, their “stress sweet spot” — that level that is just right for them, in pushing beyond the discomfort.

Fionnula Flannagan continues to act at 75.

Brennan, who is research assistant professor at Trinity College and an expert on brain health and dementia prevention, says: “Challenge is the key. I give talks on brain health and I tell people it’s critical they challenge themselves; that what we do involves change or novelty. 

"And they must keep learning across the lifespan to maintain good cognitive function and to maintain brain and cognitive reserves.

“It’s like going to the gym. When you start to do something like lift a weight, or do something new, it’s very difficult and it’s challenging, and in the act of the learning you generate new brain cells; you enrich your brain networks and you can even open up new routes that you can actually use to bypass damage at a later point in life.”

But once we have learnt something and can do things relatively easy, then we are on autopilot, and not generating new brain cells. So we have to push beyond that.

“It’s not academic learning necessarily. It can be learning to juggle, learning a musical instrument — anything that makes you work harder. It’s also good for mental health because you are achieving things all the time,” says Brennan.

That pushing beyond our autopilot mode, our comfort zone, isn’t necessarily a habit that is adopted by most of us as we retire — or even in our younger years — but older people who have remained totally engaged with life are.

David Attenborough is working at 91.

THERE is plenty of inspiration to be found on our screens. Broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough is 91 years old and continues to work, so too do actors, Fionnula Flannagan, 75; Judi Dench, 82; Clint Eastwood, 86; and Dick Van Dyke, 91.

Dublin-based former schoolteacher Bernadette Kenny is still as sharp as a razor at age 92. Retired 27 years now, she says she has “something on every day”, including teaching creative writing in Dublin city centre every Tuesday and exercising in the pool three times a week. 

The mother of six and grandmother of 10 is also a member of the Shed Poets, a group of six women who meet in her shed at the back of her garden in Dalkey every Wednesday.

How does she keep her brain in such good shape?

“I read the paper every day and do the crossword. I usually write a poem every day and I memorise and recite my own poems,” she says.

Does she agree that we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone to age well?

“I would say that’s right, but if we enjoy what we are doing, then it doesn’t feel like pushing ourselves,” she says.

Veteran athlete Pat Naughton, from Nenagh, who will be 85 in September agrees that the challenging needs to be enjoyable too. 

Clint Eastwood still directs films at 86.

Two months ago he did the indoor masters championships — his 44th in a row — and he’s now busy doing 90- minute training sessions at the local track “running, jumping, and throwing” every second day, for the next outdoor championship event in July.

Apart from that he has used meditation for more than 50 years, which he thinks is good for his concentration and memory and he believes in the power of positive thinking. 

He keeps cattle, and has an extensive vegetable garden, “when most people my age have reduced theirs”.

He starts the day as he ends it: “To keep fit otherwise I religiously do seven to eight minutes of stretches every morning and the same thing before I go to bed every night, whether it’s 12am or 2am,” he says.

He’s the record-holder in the over-80 category in the Masters for the 60 metres indoors and for the high jump, long jump, shot put and javelin. 

“Next year I will be in the over-85 category and I hope to set the record for that as well,” he adds.

What makes him push so hard? 

“Enjoying doing it is number one and being motivated that I will live longer and feel better — while I’m living anyway. But if I felt I was over-fatigued I would ease off in the training; I’ve learnt that.”

Masters athletes photographer and author of the book Growing Old Competitively, Alex Rotas, has witnessed that determination: “If you stand, as I do with my camera, close to the finishing line in masters athletics events, there’s one thing that strikes you above all else. 

"And that’s how much the competitors push themselves, irrespective of their age, right up to the very edge of their mental and physical capabilities,” she tells Feelgood.

“They are in pain, they are hurting. But they tell me that’s also — perverse though it might seem to a non-athlete — part of the pleasure. It’s about recognising your limits, pushing those limits and then exceeding your limits.”

Actress Judi Dench is still active at 82.

But is there a genetic disposition towards being a superager? There may well be genetic determinants about the size of the brain originally, says Brennan. 

“But the nature versus nurture debate stopped a long time ago because we now know it’s a combination of environmental and genetic factors and that environmental factors can switch on and off genetic factors.”

It is the exploration of those lifestyle factors — what the superagers have done across their lifespan to allow them maintain such brain reserve — that is of interest to us all.

“It’s human variability but we are understanding what it is that gives them that. And the interesting thing is that they are things that you can do for yourself. And that’s the positive take-home message. It’s about ‘hey, you can try this too’. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but it looks like it’s working for them.”

Don’t forget though that the concept of challenging and pushing yourself fits in within a broader framework of living a healthy life as well, she points out. “Because you can’t go slugging back alcohol, smoking cigarettes, taking no exercise and eating a poor diet and expect that you will maintain good brain health.”

Undoubtedly it is the whole toolbox of identifiable healthy lifestyle habits for healthy ageing that contributes towards superagers being in such tip-top condition. We can also throw into that mix the need to have a positive attitude towards growing older. 

US scientific research carried out by Becca Levy, professor of psychology at Yale University, has shown that people with positive perceptions of ageing, live longer by seven years than those with negative perceptions.

The superagers — and all those living among us who are challenging themselves continuously — are showing us the way.

Keep brain cells young

None of us can guarantee that we will age at a ‘super’ rate, but we can do our best, by adopting a healthy lifestyle. 

Keep those brain cells young with these tips from the entertaining and informative website www.hellobrain.eu 

Tone up: Scientists have realised that being physically active is like drinking a tonic for your brain. When you start exercising, blood rushes around your body, including your brain. Not about to miss an opportunity, your brain takes advantage of this added oxygen and nutrients and refreshes itself, building neurons and connections.

Social butterflies: For many people, interacting with other people gives great sustenance in terms of brain health. You don’t have to be a social butterfly to siphon off the rewards. Join a book club, a community group, a choir or a sports team or have a regular coffee morning with a friend. Social interaction stimulates your brain cells to grow new connections and strengthens those already formed. New cells also spring to life in key memory areas of the brain.

Younger you: Mental stimulation is the secret ingredient to staying young in mind. So challenge your brain. If, for example, you like to do the easy level of Sudoko or the crossword, move over to the harder levels and get your brain to sweat a little. Stretching your brain in this way will improve your mental sharpness but make sure it is still a fun and enjoyable experience. Don’t push the dial too far into the red and get stressed. Your brain won’t thank you for that.

Rein in stress: Keeping stress on a short leash will benefit your physical health but also your brain fitness and overall memory performance. Remember though a certain amount of stress is a normal part of everyone’s day and in small doses it can be good for us, by motivating us to do better.

Eat wisely: Like the heart, the brain benefits from a diet low in saturated fats and high in brightly coloured fruits and green vegetables. And eating more oily fish lubricates our brain; these are rich in a type of fat called omega-3 which appears to dampen down inflammation in the brain while bumping up the birth of new brain cells.


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