Extra sharp ‘SuperAgers’ report better social lives

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Positive, warm, and trusting friendships may be a vital key to a slower decline in memory and cognitive functioning.

SuperAgers—people 80 and older who have cognitive ability at least as good as people in their 50s or 60s—report having more satisfying, high-quality relationships compared to their cognitively average, same-age peers.

Previous SuperAger research has focused on their biological differences, including the discovery that the cortex in their brain is actually larger than their cognitively average, same-age peers.

“You don’t have the be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline,” says Emily Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University and senior author of the paper in PLOS ONE.

Participants answered a 42-item questionnaire called the Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale, which examines six aspects of psychological well-being: autonomy, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. SuperAgers scored a median overall score of 40 in positive relations with others while the control group scored 36—a significant difference, Rogalski says.

“This finding is particularly exciting as a step toward understanding what factors underlie the preservation of cognitive ability in advanced age, particularly those that may be modifiable,” says first author Amanda Cook, a clinical neuropsychology doctoral student.

Friends beat family for aging well

Other research studies have reported a decline in social networks in people with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—and previous literature has shown psychological well-being in older age to be associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia.

“It’s not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you’ll never get Alzheimer’s disease,” Rogalski says. “But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list.

“None of these things by themselves guarantees you don’t get the disease, but they may still have health benefits.”

The National Institutes of Health, the Davee Foundation, and the Foley Family Foundation funded the work.

Source: Northwestern University