What a good aging trajectory may look like
There are three major trajectories of aging’s effects on our cognition, Rogalski said.
In the pathologic trajectory, cognition deteriorates faster than expected for the age, as in the case of dementia.
The reality is that the biggest risk factor for dementia is aging, said Mitchell Clionsky. Clionsky is a neuropsychiatrist who, with his wife, physician Emily Clionsky, wrote “Dementia Prevention: Using Your Head to Save Your Brain.”
A 2023 report from the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 1 in 3 Americans older than 85 have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. More hopefully, research has uncovered many of the different risk factors that can be mitigated with lifestyle changes. A 2020 report from Lancet estimates that about 40 percent of dementias may be preventable.
In the normal or average trajectory, research shows, memory and cognitive abilities can begin to decline around your 30s or 40s. By the time most people are 80, on certain memory tests, they can remember about half as much as when they were 50, Rogalski said. Despite being less sharp, older people following this trajectory are still able to function — and thrive — in everyday life.
There is, however, a lot of individual variability.
This variability led to the discovery of the third trajectory: SuperAgers, who even past their 80s appeared to be at least as mentally acute in memory as those in their 50s and 60s.
It is not known what percent of the general population qualifies as SuperAgers, but they appear to be rare, Rogalski said. Even when researchers tried to screen only participants who believed they had good memory, less than 10 percent met the definition.
Over time, researchers followed those enrolled, examining their health, imaging their brains, recording their life histories and asking them to donate their brains to be studied after they die.
“The word I would use to describe this group is resilient,” Rogalski said. Many SuperAgers endured hardship, including extreme poverty, losing family at an early age or surviving Holocaust concentration camps, she said.
SuperAgers tend to have strong positive social relationships, which require a degree of adaptability when there are fewer peers of their age.
One SuperAger lives with his daughter and grandchildren, who do not know much about Frank Sinatra or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rogalski said. Instead, the SuperAger asks his grandchildren about their interests: Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper.
“He laughs at this and finds joy in trying to keep up with what his grandkids are interested in instead of seeing that as too far of a reach or a burden,” Rogalski said. “And I think that that’s a really lovely outlook.”