Becoming a Superager

In my first article we spoke of the need to have a structured plan to reach our longevity goals. So lets start by defining the goal. My goal is to live to 100 years of age in good health, mentally, physically and financially. We’ve already spoken of the need for a lifestyle change in order to give the best chance of reaching this age and the term “superager” entered the conversation. So what is a superager and how will becoming one help me reach my longevity goals?

An article in Harvard Health Publishing defines a superager as a person in their 70’s or 80’s who has physical or mental capabilities of people decades younger. In one section of the article it references a study of participants at the 2015 National Senior Games in which a Norwegian calculator was used to estimate the biological age of the athletes. Whilst their average chronological age was 68, their biological age was estimated to be 43. The same article also detailed the higher levels in cognitive function of superagers over their more sedentary compatriots, showing superagers have similar cognitive skills to 18–35 year olds. So how do people become part of this superageing group?

The pathways to physical and mental superageing have traits common to both. There must be a desire to succeed, commitment to making the changes to how you live and grow and a realisation that you’re going to need to move outside your comfort zone to achieve the results you want.

In a New York Times article “How to become a superager” Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University relates the results of a study of superagers carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital. By using MRI scans they were able to compare the brains of superagers with those of people having a similar chronological age. What they found was that superagers had maintained the thickness of a number of brain regions that had thinned in their counterparts. These areas appeared in regions of the “limbic system” which are known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain, important for functions such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs and coordination. Research has also shown that the thicker these regions are the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention.

Dr Barrett and her colleagues believe that performing difficult tasks through vigorous exercise and strenuous mental effort help to keep these areas of the brain thick and healthy. The only drawback is, increasing activity in these regions of the brain can bring feelings of frustration as you grapple with a new skill like learning a language or learning to play an instrument. As with increasing physical muscle the discomfort we feel means the process is working. Dr Barrett equates superagers to Marines. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment, just like the Marines Corps slogan “pain is weakness leaving the body”, and just like the Marines…if you’re serious about succeeding you have to push through it.

Now to the physical side of superageing and again….it’s going to hurt! The Harvard Health Publishing article we referenced earlier states that on average people lose 10% of their aerobic capacity every decade after passing 30. Aerobic capacity is the amount of oxygen you can take into your body and distribute to your tissues in a minute, expressed as V02 max. According to Dr J. Andrew Taylor, director of the Cardio-vascular Research Laboratory at Harvard affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, by carrying out high intensity exercise for 20–45 minutes a day we can improve our aerobic capacity and increase our V02 max to that of people 30 years younger. By increasing V02 max the risks of cardiovascular disease, dementia and death decrease.

So to summarise, if I want to join this group of superagers I’m going to have to work my mental muscles by taking on a mental challenge and hit the gym to work on my physical ones. Tomorrow we’ll look at other tools I can use on the journey to becoming a superager.

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Superagersmindset

Exploring how to change my lifestyle to give me the best change of growing into old age and looking at it from the concept of healthy, wealthy and wise.