Want to be a super-ager? Work your brain!

Want to be a super-ager? Work your brain!

Picture credit: pixabay.com/ Fotari70DX

At what age does one become old? Super-agers say 'never'.

That super-ager could be in your own home or neighbourhood. Remember that ‘I am 80, going on 20’ year old or that 90-year-old with razor-sharp memory?

Super-ager, a term christened by neurologist Marsel Mesulam, is someone over 70 or 80, yet has the cognitive abilities of a 25-year-old. And they are what they are because of more reasons than the genes they have inherited.

They simply have goals. Importantly, they never say die!

Research says super-agers are happy to be in the discomfort zone by being physically and mentally active. They maintain strong relationships or meaningful friendships, among other factors.

“It is a combination of factors that makes one a super-ager,” says Dr Rajakumar Deshpande, Head of Neurosciences, Fortis Hospitals.

"In our own families, don’t we see members aged beyond 80 and 90 functioning well? Say, doctors, accountants... and especially those who maintain their family accounts?”

"Those who can do problem solving -- basic to complex mathematical problems -- are able to maintain their cognition. Mathematics plays a big role in keeping your brain active. Puzzles like Sudoku, for instance, are great to keep your brain active,” he says.

“Globally, look at Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian Prime Minister, at 92 and business magnate Warren Buffet at 88 — they are all super-agers. I think it is all about being mentally and physically focussed,” he says.

Closer home, Dr Rajakumar cites examples like that of Carnatic singer M S Subbulakshmi, who passed away in 2004. “Music is a form of mathematics, " he says.

The common thread that holds these super-agers together is the way they lead their lives and how motivated they are, day after day. They just don’t quit trying.

"I am 60 years old and I am not scared of getting old,’’ says Dr Rajakumar. “I do complex brain surgeries for 10 to 12 hours but I am not fatigued. I'm constantly finding ways and means to solve patients' problems. I don't see any reason for my abilities to be any less in my 70s," he adds.

The stereotyping of the aged as infirm and ‘too old to do anything’ play spoilers in the process of super-aging.

“It's when elderly people are sidelined that the declining happens," avers Dr Rajkumar.

“Fortunately, in India, you see the life of senior citizens is improving – if you look at the period from 1945 to 2020. Every 10 years, in our nation, the elderly are surviving better,” he says.

Carl Reiner, the 95-year-old American writer, comedian, director and creator is another super-ager the world loves to love. Just look at his followers on Twitter. Nonagenarians like Reiner make such phrases as ‘old and infirm’ obsolete.

His book, ‘Too busy to die’, written after he turned 90, clearly shows he has no intention of slowing down.

Incidentally, he’s also a narrator in the documentary, ‘If you are not in the Obit, Eat breakfast.

"So what makes these super-agers tick? They are mentally agile, following a pursuit, do things that are mentally demanding,’’ says Dr Rajkumar.

Do good genes too have a role in creating super-agers? “Yes, there is a very high likelihood that genes influence the ability to age efficiently,” says Dr Chittaranjan Andrade, Professor and Head, Department of Psychopharmacology, Nimhans.

“Healthy eating and regular exercise lower the risk of physical disease (e.g. cerebral atherosclerosis, neuroinflammation) that can accelerate brain disease,” he says.

“Being socially and mentally active improves a capacity known as cognitive reserve. This means that whereas nerve cells may die out gradually, as part of normal aging, the cognitive reserve will protect the brain from the deleterious effects of the nerve cell loss. Note that cognitive reserve will only delay the appearance of cognitive deficits in the aging brain; it will not prevent dementia,” he explains.

“Mindset and attitude in many ways are shaped by genetic factors, but to the extent that mindset and attitude can be acquired through environmental nudges, these can result in more healthy eating, regular exercise, and other habits that could have protective effects on the brain.

“Active social relationships keep the brain active and stimulate cognitive reserve. They don't make the brain younger,” he adds.

US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 66. It’s known that while undergoing treatment, she did not miss a single day on the bench.

Picture credit: commons.wikimedia.org/ Steve Petteway,
Collection of the Supreme Court of the US

She started working with a personal trainer at 68 following treatment after colorectal cancer.

A decade later, she underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer but returned to work soon after. At 85, last December, after a fall in her office which left her with three broken ribs, she was also diagnosed with two malignant lesions in the lung and underwent lobectomy.

She resumed work at the US Supreme Court in February 2019, It seems she has no plans of stepping down!

For many, Ruth is not just a super-ager but a superwoman as well.

Research shows that super-agers find joy in discomfort and they are always challenging their brain.

If you want to become a super-ager, experts say you really have to break a sweat over it. It’s about getting out of the comfort zone -- be it solving a mathematical problem or doing a strenuous exercise.

Dr Rajakumar has few words of advice for the young aspiring to be super-agers. "Youngsters can have a great lifestyle in moderation. Cut down on the screen time and supplement it by physical activity. Do not get into recreational drugs. Do not get into smoking and do not drink too much.”

"If you focus on the job at hand and not get bored of it, you will live long enough," he adds.

So learn a new language or a new musical instrument. If not enroll in a new online course. To begin with, as some experts say, why not calculate your taxes? Apparently, that is a great way to get older!