It's no secret. We are living longer and more healthily. Our current lifespan of 83 for women and 80ish for men is being stretched all the time .The Queen is getting ever busier sending out telegrams out to those in her dominion, who reach 100 years of age.
Getting to our 80's used to be considered a good age. Now expectations of longevity mean that getting to ninety is no longer uncommon and the number of those living well into their hundreds is continuing to increase. JAMA recorded a French woman in 1997 who lived to the ripe old age of 122. The oldest person in the world is currently Misao Okawa aged 115 from Japan. The daughter of a kimono maker, she was born in 1898.
There are currently 50,000 known living centenarians in Japan. One group, the Okinawans are the longest living group of Japanese. Their diet is simple: rice, soy and vegetables. They are probably genetically predisposed to age well and in addition they lead what we would consider a positive and low stress life with daily meditation and no alarm clocks.
What can we learn from these super agers? What is it (if anything) that they are doing differently from the rest of us?
Dr James Galvin from NYU defines a super ager as a person aged in their eighties who has the same memory performance and brain size as a person in their 50's and 60's. For some reason, the super agers retain more neurons and particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Brain fitness is what matters here. Choosing to live following brain fitness principles of healthy eating, getting enough exercise, managing stress, keeping a positive attitude and continuing to challenge out brain with new learning, while remaining socially engaged, physically healthy, being a non smoker and getting enough sleep all contribute to maintaining a healthy and productive brain.
How we age and the outcomes we experience will be determined as a matter of course as the result of the complex interplay between our genetic makeup and our environment.
We may not be able to change our genes but we can certainly control our environment and because the gene-environment interplay is what matters, it means we have potentially got a very useful way to help minimise any potential risk of cognitive decline for ourselves.
Emily Rogalski from NorthWestern University has identified (using 3-D MRI scans) that the super agers brains look the same as their younger counterparts with a thicker than expected layer of grey matter that forms the cortex or thinking cap. In addition she also showed that one particular areas called the anterior cingulate gyrus was thicker in the super agers compared to those in their 50's and 60's.
She examined the scans of 12 super agers and compared them to 10 normally aging participants also aged in their eighties and 14 middle aged participants average age 57.9 years.
The super agers have all agreed to donate their brains for research when they die which will enable the researchers to then link the attributes shown in life to the actual cellular architecture.
Certain groups of super agers have been identified as living in particular areas around the planet. What is noticeable as a common factor for many of these groups is that there is a strong sense of community and communal participation in eating and socialising. In our super fast, super stressed societies that so many of us find ourselves living in today I can't help but wonder if simply choosing to slow down, to re-establish connection with our roots, our family and our community, to eat well, exercise and reduce stress would have a benefit for all of our brains.
Perhaps I can set up a social experiment on a small Mediterranean Island to find out. Is any one interested in coming along to see?