How To Be A Superager

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We all have we have to age. It is an aspect of life that we must accept. And while we look to exert control over many areas of our life we are not always in control of our ageing.

That scares me.

Let’s play the genetic lottery card early, there is no doubt that genetics exerts a significant influence on our health. But we all have a choice about how successfully we age.

We can choose to age in the best way we can. We can be a superager. Click To Tweet
Social bonds are crucial for superaging.
“Knowing how to age and not being afraid of aging is very healthy.” – Evelyn Lauder

What does it mean to age in the best way we can? It means we remain active, healthy, mentally sharp and free of chronic pain.

Chicago neurologist Marsel Masulam was the first to use the term “Superager.” He was referring, specifically, to cognitive ageing and memory performance. Click To Tweet

I would like to borrow the term “Superager” and use it to pertain to the whole person—from head to toe. Expanding beyond cognitive performance to embrace a holistic view of the entire person.

Happens to us all

I worry about ageing. Never used to. Then I realised this ageing thing was happening to me too.

I began to ponder what my life would look like in my 60’s and 70’s. What activities would I still be capable of doing as I got older?

When I was 32, I had my first knee surgery. I was astonished and disturbed that I would need such a thing. Come on, 32 is young. Right?

So I asked my orthopaedic surgeon. He told me, from behind this vast expanse of a desk in his office on Harley Street, “What do you expect? You are almost halfway through your life expectancy.”

One nail in my coffin. So maybe I over-focus on successful ageing. Maybe why I am so intent on being a superager.

If there are things we can do to age successfully, to be a superager, and there are, then I fervently believe that it is better to put these beneficial actions into practice early. Because it might be too late when the symptoms start to show.

What is a superager?

Think about the people you know who are 60 or older. Limiting the discussion to only the cognitive abilities at this point, some of them are experiencing difficulties we associate with old age.

Things like forgetfulness or a short attention span.

Others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. So, why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline?

“Superagers” as I stated earlier is a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam. And they are characterised as people whose memory and attention is on par with healthy, active individuals 20-years younger.

These superagers are leaps and bounds above average for their age.

Yes, it is possible to be 65 and be mentally on par with 35-year-olds!

One set of researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan and compare the brains of ordinary healthy people with those of 17 superagers of a similar age.

The MRI revealed brain regions that distinguished the two groups.

For ordinary healthy agers, these regions were thinner, a result attributed to age-related atrophy. In superagers, they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, as if unaffected by the ravages of time.

So, why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline?

How to become a superager

The big questions on your mind must be: How do you become a superager? Which activities will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age?

That question is still being studied, but the best answer at the moment is: work hard at something.

Life is to be lived whatever age you are.
“Aging gracefully means being flexible, being open, allowing change, enjoying change and loving yourself.” – Wendy Whelan

Whether physical or mental, when people perform difficult tasks these critical brain regions increase in activity. To keep these areas thick and healthy you need to engage in vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort.

I won’t kid you and tell you that the road to becoming a superager is easy. These brain regions have a curious quality. When they get activated, you tend to feel pretty bad. You tend to feel tired, stuck, frustrated.

Use it or lose it

Remember the last time you wrestled with trigonometry, learned a new skill or pushed yourself to your physical limits.

The high degree of effort you have to apply to accomplish the task makes you feel rough at that moment.

There is a motto that embodies this principle:

Pain is weakness leaving the body. Click To Tweet

In other words, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers embody this. They excel at pushing past the temporary discomfort of intense effort.

And the research is conclusive. The result of that strain is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.


This does mean that enjoyable mental puzzles like Sudoku are not challenging enough to provide the benefits required for superaging. The same can be said of the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites too.

If you want to be a Superager, you must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it begins to hurt, and then do it a bit till it hurts even more.

In the western world, we have a preoccupation with happiness. Research shows that as people get older, they cultivate happiness by avoidance.

Seems a good idea. Avoid that loud, pushy neighbour who always finds something to complain to you about.

What are the potential consequences if we consistently sidestep discomfort?

Will we also sidestep mental effort or physical exertion? If we sidestep this, it will be detrimental to our brain and our overall well-being.

You might have heard of the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy. If we fail to use something, then it atrophies. It wastes away.

Brain tissue follows this philosophy too. If we don’t use these areas, they get thinner. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Is it time to take up an activity that challenges you, mentally or physically? An excellent activity is learning a foreign language (I am currently learning Spanish).

The bring it on attitude

Earlier I mentioned the fMRI imaging from superagers and a control group of normal-agers.

This research is fascinating. Admittedly, it appeals to the science nerd in me.

It showed that pushing beyond one’s comfort zones performs two functions.
It preserves the neural networks while bulking up brain regions such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

Laborious physical challenges or wrestling to solve riddles don’t benefit the prefrontal cortex. This is the region of the brain that is associated with “cognitive” or executive functions.

I don't worry about a number. I'm fine with aging.
“The brutal reality about aging is that it has only an accelerator pedal. We have yet to discover whether a brake exists for people.” – Dan Buettner

The neuroimaging suggests it is crucial to work to the point of mental or physical discomfort. Coupled with a ‘bring it on’ attitude this provides a neuroprotective effect on the “emotional” hubs of the brain.

The functions of these hubs include coordinating all five senses into a singular cohesive experience.

We all know the right attitude can get you far in life. Not only can it help you to put and keep things in perspective, but it can also help you recover from illness.

According to a 2012 study older people who felt positively about ageing were 44 percent more likely to recover from severe disability fully.

That compared with those who approached age negatively and looked upon it bleakly.

Your “need for achievement”

The “Need for Achievement” (N-Ach) theory was pioneered by the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s, and popularised by American psychologist David McClelland.

Intense and repeated efforts to accomplish a challenging or arduous task drive need for achievement (N-Ach) personality types. Individuals with N-Ach traits will work with a singleness of purpose, regardless of the mental or physical cost, towards a challenging goal with determination to succeed

As someone with N-Ach tendencies, I can tell you that if I don’t perceive a struggle, it makes a ‘challenge’ seem dull and not much fun.

My Father and Mother were typical superachievers. Their ability to succeed in both mental and physical pursuits pushed me to attempt to do the same. It seemed the norm that you lived up to.

As someone with N-Ach tendencies, I can tell you that if I don’t perceive a struggle, it makes a ‘challenge’ seem dull and not much fun.

How to determine if you have N-Ach tendencies

When researchers on Superaging were trying to measure someone’s degree of need for achievement, they would have participants play a game. Horseshoes provided the opportunity to see how various people responded.

Did someone push against their limits by stepping farther away from the target or play it safe? If you kept the challenge level low, by standing in the place and racking up points, you would be rated as low N-Ach characteristics.

The researchers found that the secret to harnessing an N-Ach mindset was to find a position that was challenging enough to improve but not overwhelming.

The trick was to keep practising your horseshoe toss from a distance that was on the verge of being too demanding.

When the task started to feel too easy, the player would be advised change position. To move further away and hence increasing the challenge of the task.

Both skill set and level of challenge would increase in tandem. Which is the key to mastery.

In hindsight, I realised that I apply the horseshoe wisdom by always raising the bar and pushing against my own limits in sport and work whenever it starts to seem too easy.

By finding the point where my skills just matched the level of challenge enabled me to stay focused. I would lose myself in the task in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as being in the zone.

Pushing against our limits

My father drove all his children to optimise our potential. He rarely gave anyone praise or accolades.

My dad had a tendency to set the bar unreasonably high, but I am grateful that he did.
Yes, there were periods of low self-confidence and self-esteem as a child due to his strict parenting style.

However, as a result, my brain is now programmed to keep pushing against my limits regardless of discomfort. And that appears to be a key to superaging.

Always feeling as if I need more time to be fully prepared is both a blessing and a curse.
And this fuels me to continue to push against my limits as an athlete, businessman and writer.

Trust me, this process of continually pushing yourself to be better, to improve is uncomfortable. But whether I am succeeding or not at least the ‘superager’ regions of my brain are getting a workout.

A blend of nature and nurture

Before I had heard the term “superager”, I realised that my mother’s joyful approach to her work and the, in particular, more arduous tasks played a part in keeping her mind decades younger than her 90+ years.

My Mom has always fueled her joy for life by staying adventurous and pushing beyond her comfort zones.

Might have been her first selfie 91 years old.
“Aging is an inevitable process. I surely wouldn’t want to grow younger. The older you become, the more you know; your bank account of knowledge is much richer.” – William Holden

As long as I can recall, she’s done things other superagers seem to do. She started at university in her forties, worked into her late eighties, continues to travel extensively and refuses to hire someone to paint her house.

The lifestyle habits and “need for achievement” were a part of both my Mother and Father’s DNA. And, my parents passed these traits on to me both as role models and through the same genes that gave them this temperament.

Prolonging lifespan and healthspan is getting a lot of research attention. Researchers like Dr Eric Topol are analysing the DNA of people who live free of chronic disease long past the age of 80.

Winning the genetic lottery

A group that Topol has named the “wellderly. ” His research revealed that the wellderly are more likely to have a unique set of genes. These genes protect their brain from cognitive decline as they age.

Congratulations to the wellderly for winning the genetic lottery. But what about the rest of us?

There is good news too.

The G8 countries formed the World Dementia Council (WDC) which combed through scientific evidence regarding dementia.

They determined the preventive strategies people should follow to ensure long-term cognitive health.

The WDC identified that the most significant risk factors for cognitive decline are mid-life obesity, hypertension and smoking.

They also suggest excessively low blood pressure in later life may be a risk factor.

What decreases the risks? According to the WDC review, the most significant single factor is regular physical activity.

Walking will decrease the risk of cognitive impairment, although more intense training is considered more beneficial.

Think you are too old to start? Your age doesn’t matter. Inactive seniors who begin exercise programs show “significantly improved cognitive function.”

Get regular exercise

Staying fit has so many perks. It maintains muscle mass, balance and strength, which you lose more rapidly as you age. And it helps reduce memory loss that comes with age.

Research by Canadian kinesiologists proves that regular organised exercise performs two age-defying functions:

  • It helps maintain physical fitness and mobility.
  • More critically, it can create new neurological pathways and rebuild old ones.

The key is the form of organised exercise you choose.

Those recommended need you to tax your mind to control the movements of the body.
Which is precisely what Tai Chi, Karate, Taekwon-Do and a whole host of other martial arts do.

A superager works until it is uncomfortable and then work harder.
“Everything we’ve been taught about health, weight loss and aging is wrong.” – Jorge Cruise

In short, regular organised exercise is one of the healthiest things you can do. It can even be an effective treatment for many chronic conditions like arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. And it is a key to being a superager.

There’s evidence to suggest other lifestyle measures can help.

A Superager socialises, a lot

Friends count for a lot.

People with significant social ties are more likely to live longer and age better than those who are lonely, isolated and alone. More satisfying, high-quality social engagement may also help.

Maintain a healthy diet

You are what you eat rings true, and nutrition plays a vital role in how well you age.

A Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasises whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil is beneficial in helping to prevent heart attacks, strokes and premature death.

And just like exercising, it’s never too late to start.

You benefit from eating this way at any point in life too. The diet works by lowering inflammation and oxidative stress.

These are two possible causes of various age-related chronic diseases and health conditions.

It can also help improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

Watch how much you eat

Your body needs food to survive, but overeating can lead to a shorter lifespan and severe problems with your health. These include increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

That doesn’t mean you should severely restrict your calories. Instead, enjoy a balanced diet and make smart food choices.

And remember to keep your salt and sugar to a minimum.

Develop your sense of humour

Many superagers suggest that the number one thing that creates a superager is a sense of humour. They don’t take things too seriously, letting slights and injustices slide off them.

When you can laugh at life’s little indignities, they become more bearable. And this might just possibly extend your life.

If you look at body fat, it seems to increase with age, even though your weight does not. That's a physiological fact of aging, they say. Heck it is. It is an adaptive effect of aging.
“If you can slow the biological process of aging, even a minor slowdown in the rate at which we age yields improvements in virtually every condition of frailty and disability and mortality that we see at later ages.” – S. Jay Olshansky

But don’t take it from me, or the volumes of scientific research. Take the advice of the people who have aged themselves successfully.

My Mum is one of these people. I think of her as a superager.

As I said earlier, she is 92 and keeps moving by gardening, walking and being involved with community events.

Her numerous bridge groups create opportunities for social contact as well. These groups help her stay in touch with old friends and creates opportunities to build new ones.

Without a cure, prevention is crucial

Let’s not fool ourselves, cognitive decline and dementia are significant problems.

By 2050 the number of people living with dementia will triple. In the absence of any plausible cure, prevention becomes all the more necessary.

Most people believe that as we get older, our brains will lose neurons. Those are the precious little nerve cells in our brain that do amazing things. And if we lose those neurons, then we will also lose our ability to think.

The facts are that you can lose a substantial number of neurons without suffering mental decline. You may have been told that we only use 10% of our neural capacity before?

We lose neurons every day. The key is to our remaining ones on overdrive by really taxing them. And if we do that, the more of our mental acuity we’ll be able to maintain and be a superager.

So the premise that there is no preventative measure you can take to prevent cognitive decline is untrue.

The findings are conclusive, and they say engagement alone is not enough. Only continuous and prolonged challenge gives us significant benefit.

Get in the enhancement zone

When you are working comfortably, you are said to be inside your comfort zone. The problem is that when you are in your comfort zone, you may be outside of your area for enhancement.

Ingrained in the psyche of the Finns is a concept called “Sisu.” It means that you ‘fight to the end and never give up’ no matter what. I think we could all adopt a bit of that.

So, if you want to be a superager and stay mentally and physically sharp into old age, you can’t just retire: you must rewire!

Regular sessions of vigorous effort, whether physical or mental, help to build up your brain circuitry and help you age successfully.

You need to keep up the hard work, push past momentary discomfort, and enjoy your “rewirement”.

I recommend sharing this article with family members and friends who want to be superagers or have someone who they care about and would like them to be a superager.

They might also benefit from this post on how a positive outlook can add years to your life as well.

Then, discuss various ways to inspire one another to be less complacent and push into the pain of being outside your comfort zones. Regardless of your age.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word 🙂


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David Brett-Williams