Longevity researchers are incessantly seeking out the secret to longer and healthier lives, like those enjoyed by the group they call “SuperAgers.”
SuperAgers are people aged 80 and above who demonstrate disproportionately impressive cognitive function. Put another way, mentally, these older individuals perform as well as people substantially younger, sometimes by decades.
According to Dr. Marc Milstein, Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry, it is not just our genes that determine how our brains will function; it is also behavior. These behaviors can either improve or deteriorate mental capacity and memory recall.
One key behavioral difference researchers have discovered between SuperAgers and their “average” peers is the pursuit of learning. A study published last year in the JAMA Network journal Neurology analyzed SuperAgers over 18 months. The study’s authors found that SuperAgers focused on learning as they got older.
For many people, learning drops off a steep cliff once school is complete in the formative years. For SuperAgers, however, education is lifelong, stimulating their brains well after high school algebra is finished.
Dr. Milstein said to think of the brain like a bank account. The more “deposits” made, the higher — or healthier — the bank balance. In terms of our minds, the more connections we make between brain cells by engaging in learning, the better it functions.
As time passes, these connections between cells diminish. Think of recurring bill payments that slowly chip away at your bank balance. Without new income — or in this case, new knowledge — the account will continue to deteriorate over time. Same with our minds.
Another study suggested that higher levels of education correlated with more active frontal lobes when memory tests were administered. The frontal lobe is the region of the brain associated with memory recall.
Luckily, you do not necessarily need to enroll in night classes at the local college to get the benefits. Another study indicated similar benefits came from activities like frequent reading and writing.
While Sudoku and crossword puzzles may be great, Dr. Milstein said that engaging in new skills is essential. Over time, your daily Wordle challenge will not stimulate your brain as it once did. A new, fresher challenge, like jiu-jitsu, may be required to elicit more meaningful benefits.
The act of learning a new skill or absorbing new information significantly drives new connections in the brain. Dr. Millstein compares it to exercise, saying, “You wouldn’t go to the gym and only work out your forearms.”
People need to address different body parts, or in this case, other parts of the brain, via exposure to diverse and novel activities.
Dr. Millstein recommends a mix of mental and physical challenges. Just like reading, learning a new physical skill, like line dancing, can spur new brain cell connections.
As a result, mixing up your activities each day and incorporating new learning opportunities can seemingly have a noticeable positive impact on brain function as people age.