How to be a "SuperAger"
by Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP
What can we do to help ensure that as we age, we maintain our cognitive and physical health for as long as possible?
We already know the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, and we know it can be helpful to work puzzles, learn about new things and generally challenge and stimulate our brains. But new research suggests that it is equally important for us to socialize and stay in contact with close friends – a notion that should get our attention as we begin to emerge from over a year of forced isolation.
The research, led by scientists at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, focused on “SuperAgers,” defined as individuals aged 80+ with the mental agility of much younger people. These seniors appear to have one thing in common: close friends. Additionally, people who enjoy close friendships have been found to have lower rates of depression and/or anxiety later in life and to enjoy a higher rate of life satisfaction.
Maintaining close relationships also benefits our physical health. Socially active individuals have been shown to have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and to maintain better eating and exercise habits than their peers. People who exercised in a group rather than on their own were found to have lower stress levels and better mental and physical well-being at the end of a 12-week fitness program.
In our CJFS CARES dementia respite program, we see the benefits of socializing, regardless of the level of cognitive decline a participant has experienced. CARES participants are encouraged to socialize with our volunteers and with each other. CARES, by its nature, is a community of “close friends.”
We notice that our participants are most involved and happy when they’re engaged in shared experiences: connecting and communicating with others, reminiscing, laughing along with the group. We see first-hand that these interactions are good for the brain and improve quality of life, as this new research suggests.
For many of us, the pandemic has been a time of intense social isolation. As restrictions begin to ease, it may be difficult for us to even remember what it is like to make new friends or get together with old ones. This research may give us a new reason to make the effort.
Pam Leonard is Program Director of CJFS CARES, a 4-hour/day respite program for people with mild to moderate dementia. Pam also co-facilitates two virtual Caregiver Support Groups each week, and she provides one-on-one caregiver support at no cost through a grant from United Way of Central Alabama and Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. For more information, contact email@example.com or 205.879.3438.