We know that our brains are often not the same age as our chronological age. For instance, there is a group of people called SuperAgers, who are in their eighties and beyond but have the cognitive function of those decades younger. Conversely, it’s possible for your brain to be older than your chronological age. Obviously, that’s not something you want!
While there’s no test you can take at home to definitively say how “old” or “young” your brain is, we can think of a young and healthy brain as being at peak function. And, most often, peak brain function is associated with a sharp memory. As we get older, it can be difficult to remember names, faces, events, something we just read, or what we ate. In younger brains, the process called neural differentiation is efficient and robust. In this process, specific brain cells are tasked to remember certain types of information, such as faces. As we age, that process deteriorates, so the cells lose their specificity and do not function as well. Instead of just focusing on faces, they try to remember other types of information as well. For a SuperAger, neural differentiation is akin to that of a 25-year-old. That’s part of the reason why a SuperAger has the memory performance of a 25-year-old.
So what else are the secrets of these SuperAgers with robust memory – and all those with brain ages younger than their chronological age? A study published in 2021 uncovered some surprising answers. Over 18 months, the study followed 330 people, referred to as SuperAgers, who were 100 years or older; the researchers found no decline in most areas of memory or cognitive abilities. (While a year and a half might not sound like a long time, once a person reaches the century mark, two years for them is like 25 years for a 75-year-old in terms of brain health. For example, the risk for developing dementia increases by 60% every two years after the age of 100, while it takes 25 years for a 75-year-old’s risk of dementia to increase by the same amount. In other words, 25 years of risk is compressed into two years after the age of 100.)
So, what is the secret of these mentally strong centenarians? You might be tempted to guess “genes”. While genes can definitely play a role, 16.8% of the people in the study had genes that are known to raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, and they did not develop the disease. What seemed to be a key piece of the puzzle was lifestyle!
One major factor was that they kept learning new things throughout their life. Remember, your memories are housed in those connections between your brain cells. Think of your brain like a bank account; the more deposits we make, the less our net worth is affected by withdrawals. We make deposits (new connections) by learning new things; as we age and naturally lose some of those connections, there are simply more remaining. There’s a Spanish saying: “Learn one new thing each day.” This simple advice is an excellent first rule for brain health. Learning new information or a new skill keeps your brain young. So, if you are learning something new by reading this right now, you are doing one of the most important things for your brain.
While we are not at the point where every person can slide into a brain scanner and find out their brain age, here are just a couple of factors that can help give you a sense of your brain age. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Executive functioning – How well can I manage my day?
- Balance and coordination – How well can I move and maintain balance?
- Ability to learn and recall – How well can I remember important information?
- Movement – How fast can I walk?
- Identity – How old do I feel?
Of course, none of these questions can replace an actual brain scan and comprehensive evaluation by a neurologist. Determining brain age using cutting-edge imaging technology has become an emerging and powerful tool in research studies at large institutions to understand health, disease, and mortality.