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Superagers Engage in "Strenuous Mental Effort"



(p. 10) Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? "Superagers" (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn't merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds.


. . .


Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We're still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad -- tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: "Pain is weakness leaving the body." That is, the discomfort of exertion means you're building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.



For the full commentary, see:

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT. "Gray Matter; How to Become a 'Superager'." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., January 1, 2017): 10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date DEC. 31, 2016.)


The passages quoted above are related to Barrett's academic paper:

Sun, Felicia W., Michael R. Stepanovic, Joseph Andreano, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Alexandra Touroutoglou, and Bradford C. Dickerson. "Youthful Brains in Older Adults: Preserved Neuroanatomy in the Default Mode and Salience Networks Contributes to Youthful Memory in Superaging." The Journal of Neuroscience 36, no. 37 (Sept. 14, 2016): 9659-9668.






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