You can find Vernon Smith hard at work at his computer by 7:30 each morning, cranking out 10 solid hours of writing and researching every day.
His job is incredibly demanding — he is currently on the faculty of both the business and law schools at Chapman University. But the hard work pays off: Smith’s research is consistently ranked as the most-cited work produced at the school — a testament to his ongoing academic influence and success. He manages his job and research work while also coauthoring books and traveling around the country to deliver lectures.
It’s a remarkable level of productivity, made all the more remarkable by one simple fact: Vernon Smith is 96 years old.
Smith, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences at the tender age of 75, says he feels the same passion as he did then, and even as he did when he embarked on his career more than seven decades ago.
“Except for the fact that I don’t actually do experiments myself anymore — my coauthors do those — I think I’m as good or better than ever, partly because I have knowledge across several areas that my younger [colleagues] are in the process of acquiring themselves,” says Smith. “So we’re a good match.”
What accounts for Smith’s extraordinary mental capabilities as he nears 100? Why is he thriving cognitively while so many of his contemporaries are grappling with physical and mental decline?
And what can we do to make sure that our 90s and beyond are just as fulfilling?
The puzzle of the super ager
Researchers are attempting to answer these questions by studying people like Smith, who is one of 1,600 participants in the University of California, Irvine’s 90+ Study, a research project examining both successful aging and dementia in people age 90 and older. Scientists and gerontologists are recruiting individuals who demonstrate remarkable memory and evaluating their physical health and their lifestyles. The researchers observe the brains of their subjects using MRIs and scans, test for biological markers and conduct postmortem studies on those who have donated their brains after death (many study participants do) — all in an effort to understand this small but extraordinary group of men and women who, like Smith, are now categorized as “super agers.”
“Super ager” is used to describe someone over 80 with an exceptional memory — one at least as good as the memories of people who are 20 to 30 years younger.
Many people think they have good memories, but super agers are actually quite rare, says cognitive neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, who leads the SuperAging Research Initiative across five cities around the United States and Canada. She is also the director of the Healthy Aging & Alzheimer’s Research Care (HAARC) Center at the University of Chicago. Fewer than 10 percent of the individuals who sign up to participate in her studies have the memory and mental capacity to meet the scientific criteria for being a super ager, she says.
“We don’t often celebrate what’s going right in aging, only what’s going wrong,” says Rogalski, who was one of the first researchers to use the term “super ager.” “We’re still at the beginning of this journey, but super agers provide a great opportunity for teaching us quite a bit.”
It’s a critical mystery to crack. As 73 million boomers hit their 80s, and as medical advances expand the opportunity to live longer and longer lives, conquering the onset of dementia has never been more important. “Brain aging needs to match longevity,” says Matt Huentelman, who leads genetics studies for the SuperAging Research Initiative. “Today your body may make it to 100, but your brain poops out at 80.”
Super brains and the people who own them
Most of us have brains that will age and change in similar and predictable ways. Memory peaks between the ages of 30 and 40. Overall brain volume begins to atrophy in our 50s, particularly in the areas of the brain linked to complex thought processes and learning. Changing hormones, deteriorating blood vessels and difficulty managing blood glucose — the brain’s primary fuel — lead us toward the cognitive decline associated with aging. These factors explain why we may have trouble retrieving a word or remembering a name to match a face as we get older, and why multitasking and processing new information become more challenging.
But the brains of super agers behave differently.
- Super ager brains are shrink-resistant. That is, they shrink at a slower rate than the brains of similarly aged people and maintain volume in the areas associated with memory and focus. The SuperAging Research team identified a potential “brain signature” for super agers: They found that the anterior cingulate cortex, which impacts thinking, memory and decision-making, is thicker in super agers — sometimes thicker even than it is in most people in their 50s and 60s. In fact, in some super agers, the brain regions linked to memory storage and retrieval were so well preserved that they were indistinguishable from those in young adults, says Brad Dickerson, a behavioral neurologist and director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
- Super ager brains have supersize memory cells. The neurons around the brain responsible for memory are significantly larger in super agers than they are in their peers and even in individuals 20 to 30 years younger. These neurons also tend to be free of so-called tau tangles, the webs of proteins that collect inside neurons in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia.
- Super ager brains have more “social intelligence cells.” They contain a higher volume and density of spindle-shaped von Economo neurons — cells that have been linked to social intelligence and awareness. These specific cells help facilitate rapid communication across the brain, providing an enhanced ability to navigate the outside world.
These factors seem to combine in a way that keeps the brains of super agers from declining with age — and we’re not just talking about what happens when they get to their 80s and 90s. Indeed, by their mid-60s, super agers may already have a huge advantage over their peers. In 2016, Dickerson’s team used neuroimaging to identify the specific type of brain activity involved in memory in younger super agers (ages 60 through 80). Participants were given a list of 16 unrelated words, which they were then asked to repeat back 20 minutes later. An average 25-year-old can usually recall 14 of the words, and the average 75-year-old will remember nine. But the super agers in the study remembered just as many words as the 25-year-olds. Another study found similar results. Super agers who took a tough memory task test while in an MRI scanner were able to learn and recall new information as well as study participants who were 25 years old.