Secrets of the ‘super-agers’

Want to know the secret to a long and healthy life? Doesn’t everyone?

There are studies and studies, and the ones that present findings gleaned from a big group of participants over a lengthy time have clout. Take, for instance, the 90+ Study initiated in 2003 in the United States and involving 14,000 people.

Researchers from the Clinic for Ageing Research and Education (CARE), in Laguna Woods, California, quizzed participants every six months over the last 15 years. They conducted neurological, neuropsychological, cognitive and physical tests. They gathered and assessed information relating to diet, physical and social activities, medical history and medications, and performed brain scans on anyone who died during the study. They were intent on understanding the ‘super-agers’, the people who lived to 90 and beyond. 

Researchers have already published several scientific papers, but continue to update and add to their findings.

Among the latest:

  • people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained
  • People who were overweight in their 70s lived longer than normal or underweight people
  • more than 40 per cent of people aged 90 and older suffered from dementia; almost 80 per cent were disabled and both conditions were more common in women than men
  • about half of those with dementia over the age of 90 did not have sufficient neuropathology in their brain to explain their cognitive loss.

In other positive news for older Australians, Heather Snyder, senior doctor of medical and scientific operations at the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, said: “What’s bad for you in mid-life might not be bad for you in later life. But we have to think about what that means in the underlying biology and what we can apply to future understanding.”

90+ study author Claudia Kawas said there was, as yet, no explanation for the finding that those who drank a couple of glasses of wine or beer per day were more likely to live longer, compared to abstainers. “That’s been shown all over the world,” she said. “I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking is associated with longevity.”

“Modest” caffeine intake was also associated with living longer. “The sweet spot for caffeine was 200–400 milligrams (about two cups of coffee) a day,” said Ms Kawas. “People who took this much coffee or tea lived longer than people who consumed more or less caffeine.”

Exercise, unsurprisingly, was another key factor in longevity. People who got as little as 15 minutes per day had an advantage over those who did little or no exercise, and the effect was magnified when exercise was increased to 30 and 45 minutes per day. Beyond that, there was no huge benefit.

Having a hobby was also linked to longevity and to ageing well.

One finding which puzzled researchers was that people who were overweight in their 70s tended to live longer. “It’s not bad to be skinny when you’re young, but it’s very bad to be skinny when you’re old,” Ms Kawas said.

The study noted that most of the factors listed helped people age better physically, but not necessarily in terms of better cognition. While exercise increases blood flow and oxygen transfer which help to maintain or build the brain’s plasticity, that did not always result in improved mental capacity.

Autopsies showed that some people had extensive Alzheimer’s pathology—plaques and tangles, yet had not exhibited symptoms, while conversely, people with very little brain “gunk” sometimes had significant symptoms of dementia.

There’s work to be done.

Written by Janelle Ward

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