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Super agers changing the definition of ageing

Enough people are thriving late in life that they’ve come up with a term for them – super agers.

“A super ager is someone in their 80s or older who exhibits cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged individual,” says nm.org.

Professor Perminder Sachdev, co-director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at UNSW Sydney, defines them as people in their “70s, 80s and beyond whose ability – whether it be their memory, way of thinking or even aerobic fitness – is of the standard of someone at least 20 years younger”.

To achieve this exalted state, super ager Rhoda Lucas says to focus on “nourishing your gut, body and mind coupled with regular exercise”.

Prof. Sachdev says super agers remain active and “continue to challenge themselves with new tasks, such as learning a new language or going back to university”.

Most super agers maintain a “healthy” weight throughout life, follow a “good diet”, avoid smoking and drink in moderation. They tend to stay socially engaged and work until “very late in life”. Of course, having the right genes doesn’t hurt either.

Read more: Older Australians Wellbeing Index dispels myths about over-50s

And there are not too many curmudgeons in their number.

“They’re not deterred easily and have a sense of optimism,” Prof. Sachdev says.

A new study from Northwestern University Health shows that people who retain high memory performance in old age “have resistance to the development of fibrous tangles in a brain region thought to be essential for memory”.

Super agers show far less evidence of tau tangles in their brains, medicinenet.com explains.

“Tau is a protein that, in healthy brain cells, helps stabilise the internal structure. But abnormal versions of tau – ones that cling to other tau proteins – can develop as well,” the study found.

“In people with Alzheimer’s, the brain is marked by a large accumulation of those tau tangles, as well as ‘plaques’, which are clumps of another protein called amyloid.”

Lead study author Tamar Gefen said individuals with significant memory impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease showed nearly 100 times more tangles compared to super agers.

“There is a strong relationship between tau tangles and memory loss, and these findings in a unique super aging cohort could guide research in a new direction,” said Assistant Professor Gefen.

It now appears the build-up of tau, not amyloid, is more important to poorer memory and thinking skills.

Read more: Ageing baby boomers are missing out on health cover savings

But the US Alzheimer’s Association holds that amyloid increases in the brain hit a “tipping point that triggers abnormal tau to spread throughout the brain”. That’s when memory and thinking skills start to decline.

Ass. Prof. Gefen agreed, saying a “complex mix of factors” enable super agers to resist typical age-related declines in brain performance.

A US study of 80 super agers, using brain imaging, cognitive and genetic tests and lifestyle surveys, found their brains thinned more slowly than other people of their age. They valued “strong social networks and keeping positive, warm and trusting friendships”, the study reported.

Kaarin Anstey, of the University of New South Wales, says studies of older adults have suggested social engagement protects against dementia.

She told ABC News it’s possible that as people’s memory slowly declines, they get less confident with physical and social activity.

“This would mean social isolation could be a product rather than a cause of deteriorating brains.”

In late 2020, German researchers postulated that the genes of super agers “may help them fend off protein build-up in the brain”.

Read more: These seven tips are vital for healthy ageing

Lead researcher Merle Hoenig said the next task is to explore the ‘molecular signature’ in the brains of individuals who are resistant to the build-up of age-related proteins.

That could lead to the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other ageing-associated illnesses, she said.

Do you know a super ager? Or are you one? What do you do to ensure your physical and mental health?

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