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Gerson Sobel, 93, of Rockville Center, New York swims his morning laps at the Freeport Recreation Center on February 6, 2004, in Freeport, New York. Al Bello/Getty Images
  • An observational study looked at how superagers—people ages 80 and older with the memory function of people decades younger than them— may be resistant to age-related memory decline.
  • Researchers saw that the octogenarians with sharp memory retention also moved quicker and had lower rates of anxiety and depression compared to older adults with cognitive decline.
  • MRI scans also showed that superagers had more gray matter in key brain areas linked to memory.

Superagers are older adults over age 80 whose memories of life experiences are as sharp as those of people 20 or 30 years younger.

The mechanisms of superaging are a growing area of interest in scientific research.

A new study found that octogenarians with sharp memory retention also perform better on movement tests and have lower rates of anxiety and depression compared to older adults with cognitive decline.

Such superagers may also have more gray matter in their brains, the researchers say.

First author Marta Garo-Pascual, a Ph.D. candidate researching healthy memory aging at the Technical University of Madrid in Spain, said in a press release:

“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.”

The results were recently published in the journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity.

For the study, 64 superagers identified through a memory test taken in a previous study on Alzheimer’s disease were compared with 55 typical older adults. All study participants were age 79.5 years old or older.

Researchers found that the superagers performed better on the Timed Up and Go Test, which gauges mobility, and a finger tapping test that measures fine motor function.

The results held even when superagers reported no significant difference in exercise levels than the control group of older adults.

“Though superagers report similar activity levels to typical older people, it’s possible they do more physically demanding activities like gardening or stair climbing,” said study senior author Dr. Bryan Strange, a neuroscientist at the Technical University of Madrid, in a press statement.

“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.”
— Dr. Bryan Strange

“It’s also possible that having better brain health in the first place may be what’s responsible for superagers having faster movement speed,” Strange added.

The study also confirmed past research showing that superagers have a greater volume of gray matter associated with memory in parts of the brain.

In an editorial commentary accompanying the study, researchers Dr. Alexandra Touroutoglous, Dr. Bonnie Wong, and Dr. Joseph M Andreano of Harvard Medical School said this finding primarily focused on the medial temporal lobe of the brain, “which is consistent with previous research.”

The commenters noted that past research on another key part of the brain, the anterior mid-cingulate cortex, found greater cortical thickness and better brain network functional connectivity among superagers, who, in turn, exhibited greater memory performance.

The anterior mid-cingulate cortex is involved in a variety of functions, including attention, memory, executive function, and motivation.

“[The] greater performance of superagers relative to typical older adults might not only be a result of better memory function but could also reflect differences in motivation, executive function, and persistence in the face of difficulty, which suggests that superagers have a higher level of tenacity than typical older adults,” the researchers wrote.

In the University of Madrid study, superagers exhibited no significant difference in biomarkers or genetic risk factors for neurodegenerative disease compared to other adults of a similar age, suggesting that some other protective factor could be at work.

“Similar concentrations of dementia blood biomarkers in superager and typical older adult groups suggest that group differences reflect inherent superager resistance to typical age-related memory loss,” the study authors concluded.

Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, told Medical News Today that the study’s large sample size makes the findings an important addition to the field of “geroscience,” the study of mechanisms that drive aging.

“We do a lot of things to shorten our lives by adopting unhealthy lifestyles,” Dr. Olshansky said, adding that many superagers and centenarians — people who live past 100 — live longer and are cognitively healthier because they’re aging at a different rate than the rest of the population.

Dr. Olshansky recalled meeting some children of superagers and noting that their appearance supported the hypothesis of a genetic basis for the “biological time clock ticking at a slower rate” for some people — which is said also could explain why the superagers in the Spanish study also performed better on movement tests.

“They’re not really 80 years old biologically, even if they have made 80 trips around the sun,” he said.

“That’s why it’s absurd to ask superagers their secret to longevity; they have no clue. They’ve just won the genetic lottery at birth.”

Dr. Olshansky noted that aging science, including the current study, aims to better understand why some people age differently than others and whether the process can be influenced.

Meanwhile, he advised, “Begin with not shortening your life.”

“Even if you control all the risk factors, we still will grow old and die,” he said. “We’re left to our genetics, but we can control what we can control.”