Who are the SuperAgers? They are men and women over 80 years of age, whose memories are as good – if not better – than people 20-30 years their juniors. In a recent study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University, a group of seniors was examined throughout 9 years. Every couple of years, they had to fill out surveys about their lives and undergo neuropsychological tests, brain scans, and a neurological examination, among other evaluations.
When compared to their “normal” peers, SuperAgers were found to have some distinctive brain features: thicker cortices, larger anterior cingulate (a part of the brain important to attention and working memory), and resistance to age-related atrophy (degeneration of cells). But it was obvious to the researchers there are other factors involved as well.
In order to find attributes SuperAgers have in common and characterize them, 31 SuperAgers and 19 “normal” seniors were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their psychological well-being. It became clear that SuperAgers had another distinct common feature other than their brain structure: they all cultivated warm, satisfying and trusting relationships.
How Do They Maintain Relationships?
When interviewed, the senior citizens who took part in the research spoke of maintaining friendships that go as far back as high school or joining clubs and groups that help them stay active and socialize. For example, a woman of 103 years living in Illinois reported that she makes frequent calls and visits to her long-time friends, even those who now suffer from Alzheimer’s or those that are no longer able to leave their house. She is also a prominent figure in her retirement community – she’s on the team that welcomes new residents, and she makes an effort to make everyone feel at home and included.
Another SuperAger in the study had helped in founding a men’s group, Men Enjoying Leisure, which has grown and expanded to have several branches around Chicago’s suburbs. Every month, the group meets for two hours to discuss personal issues, such as health, family matters and more. This platform is very important, especially for men who might be less inclined to talk about their feelings and bottle things up. Knowing you are not alone in the problems you face is a big benefit one gets from social relationships.
The Link Between Social Relationships and Cognition
One scientific explanation as to why positive relationships make humans function better, is that they help calm our stress response system. Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can have a devastating effect on physical and emotional health – weight gain, slow healing injuries and more.
A different study of elderly residents in Hong Kong showed that those who cultivate supportive relationships had a significant drop in cortisol levels during the day. The human brain is more adaptive than some might think. The older we get, what’s lost in quick-recall and short term memory is balanced by the ability to reflect and hold multiple perspectives, according to experts. This means that neurological changes in an aging brain may contribute to emotional regulation and an increased ability to relate compassionately to others.
Humans are a social animal. Friendships are important at any age for our mental well-being, but it seems we also physically need one another in order to age better.