What sets super-agers apart from mere mortals? How can tap into the secrets of staying young? I became intrigued with seniors who defy aging while doing market research for a book on super-agers. To explore this special group, I needed to look no further than my own father. My family jokes that our dad is “reverse-aging.” Each year he seems to look healthier and happier. He is 94 and does not take a single medication! Researchers are often curious about what the secret is to super seniors. My father’s experiences reflect common traits of resilience that are backed up by geriatric and neurology studies.
While diet and exercise obviously plays a part in longevity, other common themes are a spirit of positivity and social connectivity. Whether at work or play, spunky seniors remain curious and grateful.
Super-Agers Show Resilience
These are the types who push past adversity and stay hopeful for the future. Three months after the sudden loss of my mother, my father broke two bones in his leg while tripping on a backyard step. This was still in the early stage of the COVID-19 lockdown period, which only compounded the pain. With support from family, he was back to walking and swimming within months of surgery, without even a limp! This setback would have left most seniors his age in a wheelchair. His daily discipline, honed by year in the Dutch military, helps him stay committed to his physical therapy and exercise routines. So super-agers start good habits early.
Trauma affected my father later in life, but it did not tear him apart. Similarly, he bounced back from a teenage trauma, when he was captured by the Gestapo during World War. He had watched other people close to him get captured by the Germans, or simply disappear. Some were killed and others, like his father, escaped captivity. Fortunately for my dad, his captors released him when the war ended- much to the surprise of his mother who had assumed he was buried in an unmarked grave. Despite the trauma, he was always able to talk about his experiences, and still maintains an interest in war books and films. From a young age, he was an overcomer.
Super-Agers Stay Active
A lifetime of fitness habits enabled my father to scramble steep steps and bluffs into his 80s and 90s. Much of my fitness enthusiasm, I can attribute to my fit father- and energetic mother. This was one reason I started doing triathlons- so I could keep up with my parents! Favorite memories involve tobogganing, snowshoeing, hiking, fishing, or target shooting. Between a busy career, long commute, church duties, and raising five kids, outings with my time-crunched father were a special treat. But he always maintained his activity level as he aged. At 94, he stretches his mind and his body, and still completes 20 pushups from his toes several days a week. Every day he walks half an hour (except during snowstorms), spins on a stationary bike or swims.
We have all heard the expression “Use it or Lose It.” But the interesting thing about super-agers is that those who stayed active did not “lose it.” Those who exercise at high intensity for 20-45 minutes a day can maintain as good cardiac function and maximum oxygen consumption as younger counterparts in their 30s. Intense physical activity increases aerobic capacity.
Exercise like a Supreme Court Judge
The late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Ginsberg, started working out with a personal trainer at age 78, and maintained regular one-hour workouts into her mid-80s, even throughout three different bouts of cancer.
- Jog for 5 minutes on a treadmill and do light stretches of neck, arms, legs and back.
- Wall squats with an exercise ball: 3 sets: 10-12 reps each.
- Medicine ball push-ups: 1 set of 10-12 reps with each hand.
- Knee lifts onto a step or box: 1 set, 10-12 reps with each hand.
- Bench Sit and Stand with Medicine Ball: 3 sets, 8-10 reps.
- Repeat light stretching
Justice Ginsberg proved that you are never too old to exercise. Consistency is key. And regardless of setbacks, super seniors all enthusiastically agree: “keep moving whatever you can! And don’t act your age.”
Sporty Seniors Never Quit
Humble Harriet Anderson, a former teammate on my triathlon team, really took this to heart. She did not see age as a reason to stop making lofty goals, and did not begin her sport until her fifties. After completing her 2.4 a mile-swim in her 18th Ironman competition, a cyclist bumped into her at mile 80. She crashed and broke her clavicle, and still managed to complete the 112-mile bike course! After securing a sling, she walked the marathon- 26.2 miles. In her early 80s, she finally shifted to sprint distances.
We’ve all heard the stories of the seniors who salsa and stretch into their senior years. Jean Bailey, 102, still leads fitness classes four times a week at her senior center in Nebraska. “When I get old, I’ll quit, she quipped” to a Washington Post writer. I’m not interested in what I can’t do, only what I can do.” As she recovered from setbacks, she would say, “I don’t believe in calamities…or getting old.”
Similarly, an inspiring centurion named Tao Porchon Lynch practiced yoga for 93 years and attributed her youthfulness to staying active and keeping a positive attitude. Just like Jean, she exclaimed, “I don’t feel that old!” She kept up her yoga until she died at 101.
Super-Agers Practice Positivity
Centurion Ruth Sweedler, 103, shares the same attitude. (Her 106-year-old sister doesn’t feel old either.) And both are still excited to read and learn new things and remain active in cultural and religious groups. “Make full use of your talents, it makes life so much more enjoyable,” she advises.
A pair of 80-year-old besties also demonstrate the adage, “You are only as old as you feel.” When COVID curtailed their plans to travel around the world in 80 days for their 80th birthday, they postponed their travel plans until the next year. Their new mantra became, “80 plus one is more fun!”
Gerontologists, agree that a positive outlook helps to optimize health and happiness in senior years. And they are discovering that much of what you think you know about aging is wrong. At Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Emily Rogalski, PhD has also been discovering fascinating findings about seniors during her work with the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Her research revealed that biological factors and family history played a part in longevity, but that social connections also set super seniors apart.
Super-Agers Maintain Social Support
My spry teammate Harriet did attribute good genes- and good luck- to her health and fitness. But she admitted that it was her children and grandchildren that helped her reach the finish line. Similarly, my dad has genetics on his side, but social connectivity also contributes to his longevity.
After losing his partner of 65-years, my dad could have gone into hibernation mode. The start of the pandemic time was a time when people of all ages hunkered down at home and lost motivation. But he chose to remain engaged with others, and to keep up his daily routines. He attended church right after the memorial, taking comfort from relationships with old friends. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but maintaining a sense of normalcy helped his brain and heart to heal.
My dad was not always the social butterfly – that was my mom – and I wondered how he would keep flying without her at his side. But my dad is relational in that he cared about people, and always shows curiosity in learning about other cultures. Minutes after my mom passed away, he was able to converse briefly in Arabic with her palliative care nurse. He smiled as they shared a connection of how they both started their careers in Saudi Arabia. That was the moment I knew he was going to be OK. When my dad traveled around the world, he always went out of his way to learn more about the people of the towns he visited. He remained in touch with the people he met over the years, with the help of my mom’s legendary dog-eared address book.
Connected Seniors are Curious and Caring
Super-ager seniors with broad social connections often share a wide variety of interests and involvements in social causes. During the pandemic, centurion Jean Bailey led fitness classes four times a week at her senior facility, to foster social connections and activity levels. She also took initiative during another historical crisis, by hiding Jews at the start of World War II. And she has advocated for animals throughout her life, helping endangered wildlife and leading 4-H groups. Her skills and pursuits include a winning ballroom dance competition, entering America’s Got Talent competition and writing a book on meditation. Having wide interests and being social with everyone she meets makes people want to spend time with her. Her mantra is, “The only way you can multiply happiness is to divide it.”
Super-agers actively cultivate social relationships. Researchers gathered date from over 700 participants around the world and discovered that the hardest part about retiring was not being able to sustain the social connections they had at work. In “Work Pray Code,” sociologist Carolyn Chen explores how workplaces became the new faith communities. Previously, people found meaning in places of worship or civic organizations. When these were sacrificed for work, people struggled socially when no longer engaged at work. “I get spiritual sustenance from talking shop,” one retiree said. When people feel they matter at the workplace, it can become the main source of value. And when they lose or leave their job, they feel like their lives have less meaning. Hobbies may not be enough. The good news is that by applying time, energy, and intellectual abilities elsewhere, we can reestablish social connections. Super-agers often invest in meaningful relationships early on.
Super-Agers Exercise their Brains
Just as physical exercise keeps the body fit, intense brain activity helps strengthen parts of the brain used in reasoning and memory. Maybe that is why my dad has always had a phenomenal memory. While he laments his memory is slipping, he can still recall the names of students and teachers he went to school with, going all the way back to kindergarten. And he can converse casually in five languages. He likes to keep his brain active by doing word puzzles like Sudoku and Scrabble.
Scientists believe that the memory of the average person in their 30s gradually declines thereafter, whereas super-agers follow a different age trajectory. Their brains seemingly age more slowly, and when they reach 80 and beyond, their mental faculties resemble the brain function of people decades younger. Emily Rogalski, PhD, of Northwestern School of Medicine, in her decade-long study of seniors, concluded that keeping the brain active is as important as keeping the body active.
Seniors Stretching Themselves
Super-agers are willing to endure occasional lapses or discomfort to tackle a new challenge, and not just maintain old skills. Neurologist Dr. Bradford Dickerson from Harvard-Affiliated Massachusetts General, has also been studying the habits of super-agers in their 70s and 80s for years. Using brain imaging, his lab studied brain regions involving emotion, language, and stress. They discovered that different regions of the brain were impacted by how super-agers tackled problem solving. If the super-agers felt that a challenge was a problem they could succeed at, their brain matter retained more cells than more typical seniors who gave up sooner.
Thus, taking on tasks that might seem intimidating can make a visible difference in the brain! Since my father always likes to problem-solve and tinker and does not shy away from away from challenges, I can imagine that his brain scan would light up like a Christmas tree. I can still hear him say “If Noah could build an ark, I can fix this.” Super agers are more willing to move out of their comfort zones, test their skills, or complete a task independently.
Seniors Setting Extreme Goals
Jeanne Socrates, a British sailor, took this to heart when she sailed solo around the world at the age of 76. She broke records for: the longest time at sea, the longest nonstop sail, and the oldest person to sail around the world, passing all five capes. Talk about enduring discomfort and taking problem-solving to the extreme! She is just one of many who found notable success later in life.
Colonel Sanders started his KFC restaurant empire at the age of 65, using his $105 social security check. Writer Frank McCourt of Angela Ashes published his Pulitzer Prize biographical tale at age 66. Grandma Moses, who gave birth to ten children, launched her prominent art career at age 78. Perhaps most inspiring of all is the world’s oldest student Mary Walker, who learned to read, write, and do basic math at age 116. These super-agers showed the world that age was no limit!
Mary Walker stretched herself through slavery and discrimination, through the Civil War and Civil Rights. Like many super seniors, she returned to her own deferred dreams after her children were grown and gone- outlasting her whole family. At the spry age of 114, she took classes at a literacy center for two nights a week for over a year. Indeed, seniors who pick up new endeavors seem to improve with practice, regardless of the age they started. What was Mary’s driving force to consistently put in the work and show up- after years of taking on jobs and raising children? What commitment are you willing to put in to meet your goals?
Super-Agers Eat Sensibly
All this brain and body fitness requires good fuel. But we need not all survive on bean sprouts and kale. My dad always liked his nightcap, one of his regular indulgences, and he smoked an occasional cigar. In fact, brain researchers at Northwestern University have found that those who indulge in occasional alcohol are 23% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Most super-agers eat in moderation. They may not always consume the healthiest foods on the planet, but they often eat in moderation and do not over-indulge. My father’s staples are meat and vegetables. He also enjoyed a healthy bread that he often made himself: a rye loaf that was dense as a brick, topped with slices of Gouda cheese or salami. Growing in the Netherlands, he also had his share of salted herring, sausage, broccoli, kale, and sauerkraut. He consumed probiotics and Omega 3 before their time!
We are amused by spunky seniors who say “I have a nightcap every day” or “I drink six cups of coffee a day,” but are there ideal beverages or diets as we age? Dr. Rudy Tanzi, a genetics and aging researcher and neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered that MIND diets reduced signs of Alzheimer’s in brain tissue.
Brain-Boosting MIND and DASH Diets
What is a MIND diet, you might ask? (The medical field has as many acronyms as the military.) MIND stands for The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay. And DASH stands for Dietary Changes to Stop Hypertension.
Not only can you prevent cognitive delay and dementia, but you can reduce hypertension as well. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” says Dr. Tanzi. He believes such diets generally lead to less plaque and “tangles“ in the brain that is typical of brain diseases. In fact, the brains of people who ate plant-based diets looked 18 years younger than their biological age! DASH diet advocates also recommend more potassium and magnesium and less salt, sugar, and saturated fats.
A diet that is rich in fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts is recommended for optimal brain health. Though some debate remains among nutritionist on whether dairy products are inflammatory, many agree fermented dairy products like yoghurt and kefir may help increase probiotics and support intestinal health. Just watch the sugar content! Generally, anything that reduces inflammation is good for the body and the brain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, making simple changes to the diet, like adding more nutrient dense fruits and vegetables, can reduce plaque build-up in the brain. This reduces neurogenerative delay and improves memory function.
Super-Agers Practice Kindness
It’s not just about keeping your body and brain active, socializing, and eating well that keeps people young. There is one more common theme among super-agers: practicing kindness.
Researchers at Columbia University discovered that kindness contributes to longevity. This discovery was made quite by accident. During a study to establish the relationship between high cholesterol and heart health in rabbits, researchers found that heart health in the rabbits improved due to the nurturing care of the researchers. They concluded that kindness is good for your heart, which led to a larger study on what makes us sick or healthy. Research demonstrated that love, camaraderie and community also impacted heart health.
This finding was echoed by studies at the University of Utah. In fact, not only does your heart health improve with receiving kindness, but also by giving kindness.
Kindness Helps the Brain and Heart
“Thinking kind thoughts toward someone or doing something nice for someone boosts dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters in the brain that give you those positive feelings of pleasure, happiness, and well-being,” says psychiatrist Dr. Kristin Francis. “Kindness can positively change your brain!”
Kindness may also help you live longer: it is literally heartwarming! Researchers have found that when we practice kindness, our bodies release the oxytocin hormone. Blood vessels expand and blood pressure reduces. Thanks to Oxytocin, we can protect our hearts with kindness.
Giving ourselves a daily “pep talk,” recognizing our achievements and gratitude may feel awkward at first. But we can become more gracious to ourselves and those in our social networks. And self-love is biblical: the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament says,” Love others, as you love yourselves.”
Investing in Others Pays Off
Many super-agers invest in relationships early in life. But it is never too late to foster kindness or meaningful connections. We can ask ourselves what we lack from current relationships and how we can make the most of them. Who might you like to get to know better, reach out to or spend more time with?
How can we learn from people who are different than us? All these experiences and relationships provide meaning and purpose. Paying less attention to the problems in life, and more to the people, propels super-agers to make the most of life. We don’t all want to live to be 100, but we can all live with purpose and compassion! And the more we show kindness, the more kindness and goodwill trickles down to others.
My parents hiking in the hills of California in their mid-eighties.