A study published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity journal has revealed that people in their eighties, known as superagers, who can recall everyday events and life experiences as well as someone 20 to 30 years younger, also demonstrate greater movement speed and have lower rates of anxiety and depression compared to typical older adults.
The study, led by Marta Garo-Pascual from the Queen Sofia Foundation Alzheimer Centre in Madrid, delved into the phenomenon of superagers, who seem to avoid the age-related decline in memory function that most people experience as they age.
“We are now closer to solving one of the biggest unanswered questions about superagers: whether they are truly resistant to age-related memory decline or they have coping mechanisms that help them overcome this decline better than their peers. Our findings suggest superagers are resistant to these processes, though the precise reasons for this are still unclear. By looking further into links between superageing and movement speed we may be able to gain important insights into the mechanisms behind the preservation of memory function deep into old age,” said first author Marta Garo-Pascual.
While previous research has highlighted differences in brain structure and lifestyle factors among superagers compared to typical older adults, this study is one of the largest analyses of superagers to date.
The research involved 1,213 participants aged between 69 and 86 years, free from neurological or severe psychiatric disorders. Among them, 64 superagers and 55 typical older adults were identified based on their performance in cognitive tasks. Superagers showed memory function equivalent to the average person around 30 years younger with the same education level.
MRI scans revealed that superagers had more grey matter in key brain areas involved in memory and movement compared to typical older adults. Moreover, their overall level of grey matter in these areas declined more slowly over five years.
The study found that faster movement speed and better mental health were the factors most often associated with superagers. They performed better in mobility and fine motor function tests, indicating better agility and balance despite no differences in self-reported exercise levels compared to typical older adults.
Additionally, superagers had lower levels of anxiety and depression, which are known risk factors for dementia and can impair memory function. The study suggests that physical activity, better brain health, and other factors may contribute to the preservation of memory function in superagers.
Senior author Dr Bryan Strange, of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, said: “Though superagers report similar activity levels to typical older people, it’s possible they do more physically demanding activities like gardening or stair climbing. From lower blood pressure and obesity levels to increased blood flow to the brain, there are many direct and indirect benefits of being physically active that may contribute to improved cognitive abilities in old age. We have shown before that when young adults make movements at the same time as seeing pictures, they are more likely to later remember the picture than if they don’t move. It’s also possible that having better brain health in the first place may be what’s responsible for superagers having faster movement speed.”
“Further research in these areas may ultimately reveal ways to help preserve memory function in more older people. What we have, however, discovered is that there is an overlap between risk or protective factors for dementia and those associated with superaging (such as blood pressure, glucose control and mental health). This raises a possibility that some putative risk factors for dementia are, in fact, contributing to age-related decline in memory-related brain activity that may act in parallel or additively with dementia pathophysiology to amplify memory impairment.”
Other self-reported differences were also observed, including that superagers’ lifestyles in midlife were generally more active, were satisfied with their sleep duration, and were more likely to have a musical background – either taught or amateur – than did typical older adults. Superagers also demonstrated greater independence in their day-to-day living and scored higher in intelligence tests.
The research provides valuable insights into the factors associated with superaging and may pave the way for strategies to preserve memory function in older adults. However, further research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind superaging fully and to explore additional genetic links related to this phenomenon.