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"Super-Agers" Who Remember Everything at 80 Have These Things in Common, Research Says

Recent studies found that super-agers' memories are just as good as people 30 years younger.

For many of us, our memories seem to get just a little bit worse with each passing year. It starts with being unable to remember if you locked the door or unplugged your hairdryer, and then you find yourself forgetting appointments or the name of a new acquaintance. But while we're led to believe this is a universal experience, there are some people whose memories remain sharp even as they age. These "super-agers" seem to remember everything at 80—and science shows that they have a few things in common.

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Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience yesterday and a companion study published in Lancet Healthy Longevity in Aug. 2023 looked at 119 participants over age 79.5 in Spain. Fifty-five were typical older adults, while 64 were classified as "super-agers," or those with "the memory ability of people 30 years younger."

Participants took three non-memory and one memory test (the Free and Cued Selective Reminding Test). They were classified as super-agers if they scored above the average score for 50- to 56-year-olds on the memory test, and around or above the average for their age on the non-memory tests.

As it turned out, the super-agers had similar-looking brains. Overall, they had less brain atrophy (loss of neurons and connections between them) than typical older adults, notably in the "memory-related areas" like the hippocampus, MRI scans showed. Super-agers specifically had better-quality white matter in the front of the brain, which is a region that plays a role in cognition.

Notably, super-agers and typical adults had no differences when it came to genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.

"By having two groups that have low levels of Alzheimer's markers, but striking cognitive differences and striking differences in their brain, then we're really speaking to a resistance to age-related decline," lead study author Bryan Strange, CTP, UPM, a professor of clinical neuroscience at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, told The New York Times.

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Experts aren't sure how many super-agers exist, although Emily Rogalski, PhD, professor of neurology at the University of Chicago, told the NYT that they are "relatively rare." (Rogalski conducted her own research on super-agers in 2012, finding that these older adults had brains that looked like those of 50- to 60-year-olds.)

How people become super-agers is not clear either, Tessa Harrison, an assistant project scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked with Rogalski on the 2012 study, told the NYT. But she suggested that super-agers may simply have "some sort of lucky predisposition" or "resistance mechanism in the brain" that scientists don't understand just yet.

Speaking to this, Strange told the NYT that super-agers and typical adults also had similarities in terms of their diets, sleep habits, professional backgrounds, and alcohol and tobacco use. However, super-agers set themselves apart in that they had better mental health and moved faster than average older adults. (While super-agers reported similar exercise frequency to their "typical" counterparts, researchers hypothesized that they may engage in more "non-exercise physical activity," like climbing the stairs or gardening.)

Even so, there was wavering consistency among the super-agers group, too. While they all had exceptional memories, super-agers in Rogalski's study differed in how often they exercised, how healthy their diets were, and whether they smoked. Solid social relationships, however, were something they had in common.

If you want to up your odds of maintaining a healthy brain, experts recommend keeping your diet in check, exercising, maintaining your social life, and getting enough sleep, the NYT reported.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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