I remember when Alida Desroches, the Franco-Ontarian grandmother of my sister-in-law, Darlene, wished me a happy birthday when I was in my 40s. “Live to 95 like me and you’ll have real stories to tell,” she quipped, giving me the strongest of hugs.
“SuperAgers are those adults in their 80s or older who have cognitive abilities similar to people decades younger. They’re are living long – and they’re living well.”
I couldn’t believe her age when she told me. She must be kidding, I thought. It turns out Desroches wasn’t fibbing. She was indeed 95. She lived alone in her modest home in Penetanguishene, ON, where she tended her own garden, walked to and from church and spent her free time bowling and step-dancing. She had the energy, sharp-mindedness and mental vitality of someone much younger.
Desroches used to joke that she wanted to live long enough to see all of her children receive the old age pension. When she died in 2013 at 106, all of her offspring had indeed reached the age of 65. In fact, her son Lionel was 81. Two of Desroches’ sisters are still living: Bernadette, 95, and Albertine, 96. Not surprisingly, Desroches’ own mother lived to be 91.
Desroches, as well as her two sisters, fit the definition of what experts are now calling SuperAgers – those in their 80s or older, who have cognitive abilities and energy similar to people decades younger.
There has been a heightened interest in SuperAgers as their number grows in Canada. According to StatsCanada, the number of Canadians aged 80 and older is expected to more than double to 3.3 million by 2036. The population aged 100 and older could triple to more than 20,000, it stated.
Health professionals are eager to discover what makes a SuperAger so dynamic. While studies vary in their findings, experts are finding common traits among them – some of which are surprising.
Staying social, staying connected
According to professor Emily Rogalski, the lead on the SuperAging study at Northwestern University in Chicago: “One factor that played a big role in how a person aged was social interaction: People who lived longer had very close relationships over the years.” A Harvard study also found that relationships were a key predictor of longevity.
Community, close friends, and strong family relations were key elements in the life of Desroches. She was surrounded by a large supportive family and a strong network of lifelong friends. The local church, where she volunteered, was part of the fabric of her life.
Passions and a purpose in life
Ageing experts in Japan studied the rural town of Shimoichi (population: 6,900), where they found that having a hobby or purpose in life was a common predictor for longevity. Those older adults who’d thrown themselves into a cause, sometimes a community endeavour or an engaging pastime or hobby, possessed the vitality and mental clarity of people much younger.
Dr. Bradford Dickerson, a neurologist at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, is among a team of experts who believe that embracing new mental challenges may be the key to preserving both brain tissue and brain function. Dr. Lisa Barrett, one of his colleagues, found that many of the SuperAgers in their test population demonstrated a willingness to endure discomfort – a move out of their comfort zone – in order to master a new skill, like playing a musical instrument or speaking a new language. Desroches continued to play complicated card games – and learn new ones – until she was 104.
Get up and move
Physical activity appears to be a common trait among SuperAgers. The 90+ Study, conducted by researchers at the Clinic for Aging Research and Education at the Laguna Woods lifestyle centre in Southern California, found that older adults who got as little as 15 minutes of exercise per day had an advantage when it came to longevity. Desroches regularly bowled and danced, and excelled at a heart-pumping form of step-dancing that was part of her Franco-Ontarian heritage. According to 90+ Study author Claudia Kawas, “…exercise increases blood flow, oxygen, and a cascade of molecular mechanisms that increase the brain’s plasticity – the ability to grow new connections, and to grow new neurons.”
Eat and drink in moderation
It’s a conundrum. While we’re constantly advised to eat well, researchers haven’t found that SuperAgers (at least those studied so far) have placed a high priority on healthy eating. Nor does it seem SuperAgers are keen to abstain from alcohol. Kawas said that those who drank a couple of glasses of wine or beer per day were more likely to live longer, compared to abstainers.
While some studies suggest a genetic link to longevity, others insist that a myriad of factors determines how long one will live – and how robust that life will be. As respected Canadian nutritionist Leslie Beck says in her book, Longevity Diet: The Power Of Food To Slow Aging And Maintain Optimal Health: “What matters most in the aging process is what happens to our genes after we inherit them.”
While there isn’t one specific blueprint that guarantees someone can become a SuperAger, following the lead of people like Alida Desroches is a good start. As Rogalski says, “We are getting quite good at extending our life span but our health span isn’t keeping up and what the SuperAgers have is more of a balance between those two, they are living long and living well.”