One of the most concerning aspects of growing older, for many, is the concept of losing mental capacity. As we age our brains begin to shrink in volume, this eventually leads to a decline in memory, productivity and efficiency. The age at which this change begins has recently been scrutinised. While it was originally believed to commence during our 50s, some sources suggest that human cognitive ageing can start earlier.
‘The natural decline of some of our mental abilities as we age starts much earlier than some of us might expect,’ according to Rebecca Wood, Alzheimer’s Research Trust. Professor Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia reinforces Wood’s theory with his research, which suggests that spatial visualisation and speed of thought both start to decline in our late 20s.
However, a group of people that do not fall victim to this process are ‘superagers’. Scientists use this term to refer to seniors with outstanding memory and cognitive skills. The phrase was originally coined by Marsel Mesulam, a neurologist from Northwestern University, Chicago. A recent study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and Northeastern University in Boston analysed data taken from 40 participants between the ages of 60 and 80. The experiment measured the results rendered from this senior group, comparing them with those of subjects aged between 18 and 35. Participants were given a grammatical recall test whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, which provides images of the brain in action.
Almost half of the seniors performed as expected while the other portion showed astounding mental capacity, which was on par with that of people in their mid-20s. The individuals who performed as expected showed thinning in certain areas of the brain—a normal indication of cell loss and deterioration. These particular regions of the brain—such as the hippocampus, anterior insula, midcingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex—are renowned for their assistance in information retention, language and sensory input coordination. They also regulate thoughts, emotions, hormones and the immune system. The superagers, however, did not show such signs of thinning in these important regions—they were much thicker and showed healthier connectivity.
Keeping your mind sharp
It is never too early to begin the preservation of your memory—this is known as cognitive reserve. While there is no specific way to sharpen your mind, there are some known factors that may reduce cognitive degeneration. These are:
Forms of ‘mental exercise’ require us to expend considerable effort. Sudoku or memory apps may seem like a good option but are unlikely to dramatically improve cognitive coherence. Instead, trying to understand completely new concepts is more likely to maintain a healthy brain. Consider mastering a new language or a subject you’re not familiar with.
The same hypothesis can be applied to physical exertion. In addition to being a great weight loss solution, regularly undergoing vigorous exercise can help us retain our brain’s working functions.
The right kind of stress
Stress—more specifically chronic stress—can have a detrimental effect on our health. However, some types of stress are said to be good for you—namely, the kind that come with hard work or the challenge of a new obstacle. Our nervous system is built in a way that allows us to combat this occasional stress, using it to get the job done.
Plenty of shut-eye
Sufficient sleep is known to clear out certain ‘wastes’ from the brain known as beta-amyloid plaques—these are linked to dementia. Our body works overtime during our sleeping hours to restore and improve our immune system, therefore getting the required hours is a must. Research into this particular topic is relatively new; there are aspects that are yet to be explored. At the moment, studies cannot definitively prove whether superagers are born or made. What we can establish, however, is that building the brain’s circuitry can be managed by regularly expending effort—whether that is mentally or physically.
To test your reasoning skills, verbal ability and short-term memory, check out the Cambridge Brain Sciences online 10-minute tests at cambridgebrainsciences.com