Elderly Who Stay Sharp Into Old Age Smoke, Drink and Think Positively

A thriving social life may help you retain wits in old age. GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Mental decline is a natural part of aging, but for about 5 percent of the elderly population, their wits stay sharp well into their 80s and beyond. This group is known as "superagers" and new research sheds some light on what makes their brains, and personalities, so different from the rest.

At an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas, last weekend, scientists from across the country came together to discuss their latest findings on the brains of superagers, Science Alert reported. Superagers are a small demographic of the elderly population that retain cognition on par with their far younger counterparts, sometimes up until the day that they die. The ultimate hope is for better understanding of what makes these superagers so unique.

"It's not so long ago that we thought the only trajectory there was was to get old and senile," said Emily Rogalski, from Northwestern University, at the annual meeting, The Guardian reported. "We need to push the envelope and see what is possible in older age and how did [people] get there."

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New research found that the brains of superagers have more of a specific type of brain cell, called von Economo neurons. According to Smithsonian, these type of brain cells are only found in humans, great apes, and a handful of other social animals such as elephants. They are believed to be associated with social interplay and self-awareness.

"We can't explain how they ended up with more von Economo neurons or why that is important. But these are a special type of neuron that have only been found in a couple of regions of the brain," said Rogalski, Science Alert reported.

Not only do superagers have more von Economo brain cells than their age-matched counterparts, but many of them actually have more of these cells than 20-year-olds. The reason for this is unclear.

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In addition to having biological differences, new research has also pointed to personality differences that set superagers apart from the rest of the population. For example, superagers are more likely to be extroverts. They are also more likely to drink regularly and to have smoked cigarettes at some point in their lives. In addition, they are more optimistic, resilient, and socially active than the general population.

More is still to be learned from this interesting demographic, but ongoing research suggests that science is moving in the right direction to uncover the mysteries of superagers.