A psychology professor who recently did a study on so-called superagers has some advice on how to become a member of that elite group. Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times is titled ‘How to Become a Superager’ – one of those people whose memory and attention is way above average for their age, even on par with those who are decades younger. Her suggestion is to work hard at something. Feldman Barrett’s lab used MRI’s to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people the same age. That work confirmed that critical brain regions were thicker in the superagers. Meanwhile, she and other scientists have observed that those brain regions increase in activity and thickness when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental.
Her conclusion is that we can help keep these areas thick and healthy through vigorous use. But it has to be enough to cause some discomfort, like exercise when you are building muscle. The problem is other research suggests that as people get older they tend to pursue happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. And avoiding the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion,can result in thinner brain tissue. The bottom line, amusing puzzles like Sudoku and brain games are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Lisa Feldman-Barrett wants us to embrace tougher challenges like learning a new language or mastering a musical instrument.