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Why Do Some People Age Better Than Others?

They are called SuperAgers, and contrary to what the name might suggest, they’re not a brand-new Marvel-type of superheroes. Or maybe they are? The term is used to indicate those people aged 80 and beyond with the same cognitive abilities as those 20 to 30 decades younger.


Scientists have been studying them for years to understand what sets them apart from the rest of the population, which usually faces a sharp memory decline once old age is reached.


The term SuperAger was coined by the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program in the United States, which has run for the past 14 years. According to their website, the program was created to identify “factors that allow for a unique ageing trajectory where individuals maintain youthful memory functions," and the scientists hope that the findings will provide some clues to degenerative diseases that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer's disease.


The program, coordinated by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has received a lot of applications since its beginning, although only about 10% of applicants meet the criteria. For those that become enrolled, testing mainly consists of blood tests, MRI brain scans, and cognitive tests that measure short- and long-term memory. And for those who want to help the research after they're gone, there's even the option of donating their brain for further study.

Considering its success, last year the program was extended after receiving a $20 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA). It is now spread across four research sites in the United States and one in Canada, with the plan to enroll at least 500 participants from diverse backgrounds.


But Northwestern University is not the only place to study SuperAgers. Recently, the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology launched a similar program, after receiving funding from the M Center of Excellence. Our focus now is on identifying psychosocial factors, including levels of satisfaction, happiness, and social relationships, that can help provide clues to better ageing,” said Eileen Crimmins, a University Professor who is co-leading the project.


Biological factors 


It is thanks to the gathering of data throughout the years that there have been some groundbreaking discoveries. Studies at Northwestern have shown how in SuperAgers the cortex, which is responsible for memory, remains thicker than that of people in their 50s or 60s, which is usually when cortex shrinking starts happening.


More recently, another study carried out post-mortem comparisons of SuperAgers and normal elderly brains. The results showed that the former have healthier, larger neurons in the entorhinal cortex (ERC), which is “an area critical for memory and selectively vulnerable to neurofibrillary degeneration." The research concluded that “larger ERC neurons are a biological signature of the SuperAging trajectory."


And more specifically, SuperAgers brains present significantly fewer fibrous tangles that are heavily responsible for memory loss, as well as having a three- to five-fold the higher number of so-called Von Economo neurons, which are considered important for rapid communication across the brain.


Taken together, these findings suggest that there might be a genetic predisposition for becoming a SuperAger later in life.


Sociological factors 


But biological clues are not the only disparity. Many studies have been conducted to examine how many SuperAgers leadvery active livesmaintain social relationships with friends and family, and are generally thought to have a more positive outlook on life.


The psychosocial findings prompted a 2020 study conducted by the same USC professor who co-leads the USC project, Eileen Crimmins. The research suggested that social hallmarks may even play a greater role in age-related health outcomes


Learning from their experiences


In a world that is rapidly ageing, understanding the unique factors that influence a longer life in certain individuals can help develop strategies that ensure the same quality of life for those prone to age-related decline.


Apart from scientific analyses, the lives of SuperAgers caught the interest of photographer Barry Shaffer, who in 2006 documented through photos and in-depth interviews 70 people beyond 80 years of age, each representing a different country. The photography project aimed to “forge a rare bond between these elders and the viewer, encouraging each of us to examine our own stories, our lives, our values, and our place in the world," as Shaffer wrote on his website.


At this moment, the exact global number of SuperAgers is unknown, but it is believed that Japan is one of the countries with the highest number of active centenarians.



Phot credit: Matthias Zomer: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-a-stress-ball-339620/

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