BY SARAH OWENS
What's the secret to the so-called "super agers"—people who maintain sharp brain health into their 80s and 90s? Part of the answer may be that they have close, trusting relationships, whether with a spouse, family, or friends, according to a study published online in the journal PLOS One on November 1.
The Secret to Aging Successfully
It's normal for older adults to experience some degree of cognitive decline as the years go by. But super agers, who retain sharp cognition into their 80s and beyond, are exceptions.
Previous research has shown that their brains have different structures compared to adults who experience normal age-related cognitive decline. For example, their cortices—the part of the brain responsible for memory, attention, and decision-making—tend to be thicker, and they experience less whole-brain atrophy over time.
In order to determine whether lifestyle factors, such as diet, physical activity, and social relationships, keep super agers' brains healthy, researchers at the Northwestern University SuperAgers program in Chicago enrolled 31 older adults who fulfilled the criteria of super agers: adults over age 80 who perform at the level of 50- to 65-year-olds on a variety of validated cognitive tests, and who maintain that level over an 18-month period. They also enrolled 19 adults of the same age who were cognitively average—that is, they experienced a normal amount of cognitive decline expected with aging, but did not have dementia or mild cognitive impairment.
Participants completed a 42-question test about their well-being in six domains:
- Environmental mastery, or the ability to maintain one's life without becoming overwhelmed.
- Personal growth, or feelings of continued development and being open to new experiences.
- Positive relations with others, which measures "satisfying, warm, trusting, high-quality relationships."
- Self-acceptance, or positive feelings about oneself.
- Autonomy, or the ability to be independent and resist societal pressures.
- Purpose in life, or feeling that one's life is meaningful.
Better Relationships, Better Brain Health
When they compared the results on the questionnaire between the super agers and the cognitively average adults, the researchers found that both had generally high levels of psychological well-being. However, the super agers had significantly higher scores on the domain of positive relationships with others. This, the study authors suggest, means that "perceived high-quality social relationships may be an important factor in aging successfully."
Why do relationships play such an important role in healthy aging? It will take further research to know for sure, the researchers say. But it may be because super agers have been reported to have a higher density of von Economo neurons, a specialized type of brain cell that is involved in "higher order social cognition and behaviors, such as social bonding, social intuition, and emotional regulation."
Whatever the reason may be, it's clear that maintaining positive relationships into old age is healthy—not just for your soul, but also for your brain.