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Some aspects of our health and wellbeing as we get older are beyond our control as the risk of many illnesses and conditions increases as we age.
But new research has highlighted certain factors that can influence our cognitive health, focusing on a group of people with exceptional memories.
As part of the study, published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity, scientists examined the health and lifestyles of people known as “superagers”.
For the purpose of this research, superagers are considered a rare type of person aged 80 or older whose memory rivals those of people who are 20 or 30 years younger.
Lead study author Marta Garo-Pascual, from the Queen Sofia Foundation Alzheimer Centre in Madrid, explained: “We are now closer to solving one of the biggest unanswered questions about superagers: whether they are truly resistant to age-related memory decline or they have coping mechanisms that help them overcome this decline better than their peers.”
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To conduct their research Garo-Pascual and colleagues compared 64 superagers to 55 “typically healthy” older adults – all with an average age of 82.
The team focused on differences in brain scans, mobility tests, clinical mental health assessments, lifestyle surveys, and blood samples.
Over the course of five years, the researchers tracked participants’ lifestyle factors, scanned their brains, sampled their blood, and put them through their paces on mobility tests.
The results suggested there was a link between being both physically and mentally agile.
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MRI scans showed that the brains of the superagers shrank more slowly in areas involved in memory and movement.
The superagers were overall more active in their midlife, however they tended to carry out a similar level of activity in their elder years.
However, a timed test found superagers were quicker at getting up out of chairs.
Neuroscientist Bryan Strange, from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, commented: “Though superagers report similar activity levels to typical older people, it’s possible they do more physically demanding activities like gardening or stair climbing.
“It’s also possible that having better brain health in the first place may be what’s responsible for superagers having faster movement speed.”
Therefore, the team concluded that exercising in or before middle age could be beneficial in preserving a good memory.
The study said: “Any physical or psychiatric interventions might, however, have to be implemented in or before midlife.
“Aerobic exercise interventions in healthy older adults do not appear to yield cognitive benefit even when the intervention leads to improved cardiorespiratory fitness, and psychiatric symptoms can accelerate ageing from early midlife.”
The paper also discovered there were no differences in blood biomarkers of dementia, consistent with earlier studies that found superagers retain their memory function despite similar levels of Alzheimer’s disease proteins in their brains.
“Our findings suggest superagers are resistant to these processes, though the precise reasons for this are still unclear,” Garo-Pascual said.
Genetics also likely play a role in cognitive health, the study found, as the model used to differentiate superagers from others could only do so 66 percent of the time, based on lifestyle and clinical factors.
The team added that longer, larger studies on superagers could be needed to fully understand superagers.
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