The Secrets of Superagers

Earlier this month, I argued that life and longevity are not, in and of themselves, virtues. There is nothing about life itself that is good; a good life is one that is lived productively and enjoyably. And to the extent that we live well, living well longer allows us to accumulate more of the benefits of a good life.

The Secrets of SuperagersYet many people struggle to continue to enjoy the years at the end of their lives. As human life expectancy increases, so do Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other forms of age-related cognitive decline. But the steady diminution of mental powers is not the case for a class of older adults termed “superagers,” whose memory and attention well exceed the average for their age group and are even comparable to the mental capabilities of healthy, active young adults.

A recent study found that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of superagers’ brains showed thicker cortical masses in regions like the midcingulate cortex and anterior insula. In an article in The New York Times, Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the authors of the original study, points out that these brain regions are typically associated with emotion rather than cognition. Previous studies show these same regions see increased activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether those tasks are physical or mental. In other words, superagers appear to regularly engage in activities that may cause fatigue or frustration, but they manage to push past the temporary unpleasantness of these intense efforts.

In my experience, the most satisfying moments of life involve overcoming challenges and succeeding the in face of adversity. Of course, there is pleasure and even happiness to be found in spending time with friends and family, watching a good sitcom or observing a beautiful sunset. But I don’t believe these pleasant experiences alone make life worth living. Not only do those who actively seek comfort and avoid challenge lead lives that seem less than wholly satisfying, they also run a greater risk of losing the very mental powers that help make life enjoyable. Likewise, those who seek longevity merely for longevity’s sake may choose safety and routine over the trials and tribulations that can help them discover both a long and fulfilling life.

Uncomfortable as they may be, mental and physical challenges are a part of life. Those who embrace these obstacles and learn to work past them can get more out of existence, now and in the future.