Super-Seniors: An Unexplained Phenomenon

11 January, 2021
Many seniors have a similar intellectual performance to that of 20-year-olds. For some reason, which science doesn't yet understand, their brains deteriorate much more slowly than normal. Welcome to the world of super-seniors!

What are super-seniors? They’re special people who defy what science has always told us about brain aging. They’re 80 to 90-year-olds with a cognitive functioning equal to, or even superior than, that of much younger people.

No organ in the entire human body changes more than the brain throughout our lives. Between the ages of one and six, it grows up to four times its size. From birth to adulthood, it multiplies its capacities and functions. However, it starts to age at a given point.

However, this doesn’t happen in super-seniors. These people keep their memory intact and fully functioning until very advanced ages. Why does this happen? How do the brains of some elderly people defy time and stay youthful?

An elderly couple.

Normal brain aging

Normal brain aging depends on many factors. That’s why it isn’t possible to establish a definite age for this type of process. Usually, when people turn 60, their brains undergo changes. However, this is also influenced by their lifestyle. In fact, aging can begin earlier than this.

Whatever the case, from the age of 40, the brain begins to “shrink” at a rate of around five percent per year. From the age of 70, this process accelerates even more. The main changes that occur in the brain are:

  • A reduction in cerebral mass. There’s a contraction in the frontal lobe and in the hippocampus. This usually happens at the age of 60 or 70.
  • Thinning of the external surface of the furrow. This slows down brain processing.
  • A reduction of myelin, which affects white matter. This slows down cognitive functions.
  • A decrease in the activity of neurotransmitters. This leads to decreased memory and learning ability. It also predisposes to depression.

All these are normal processes, which, along with the decrease in our senses’ acuity, mean that our learning, information processing, and memory don’t work in the same way.

The phenomenon of super-seniors

From research conducted on elderly people, experts concluded that some older people keep their brains in a much more youthful condition than their peers. However, they don’t know why.

What we do know is that these people are capable of answering memory and cognition tests as a person in their 20s would. Experts have also found that, for some reason, their brains age at a much slower rate.

According to scientific research, the rate of brain shrinkage in super-seniors is only one percent per year and that their brains only start to shrink at age 70. The images reveal that their brains are thicker and show few signs of aging at advanced ages.

A man by the sea.

Genetics and lifestyle

The current conclusions on this matter are that, in these super-seniors, there’s a genetic factor that has a decisive influence on their brains aging at a slower rate. They aren’t necessarily smarter than their peers nor have they led a healthier lifestyle.

A study is underway to determine if there’s a substance in their blood plasma that contributes to this phenomenon. It’s being conducted by Chilean geriatrician Felipe Salech. He believes that a substance related to the lymphocytes may be reducing cerebral aging.

Research also indicates that many super-seniors have led similar lifestyle patterns. In general, a significant number of them exercise frequently, participate in intellectually stimulating activities, lead an active social life, and get good sleep.

Many of them also eat healthy diets. Apparently, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have had an impact on their youthful brain. Studies suggest that this substance has a positive impact on the neuronal network. The Mediterranean diet also seems to have this effect.

For the time being, super-seniors remain a wonderful mystery. If the mystery is ever resolved, it would surely end up benefiting us all.

  • Cabrera, S., & Osorno, D. (2013). Envejecimiento cerebral y cognoscitivo en el adulto mayor. Rev Asoc Colomb Gerentol Geriatr, 27, 1764-citation_lastpage.