Many live life under the paradigm that, upon reaching adulthood, we experience peak performance. Between the ages of 20 and 30 we reach the peak of both physical and mental health. Then comes the downhill. Deterioration in all aspects seems to be inevitable as we move into old age. But not all people age in the same way and with certain care, the myth of old age as a stage of limitations and an impoverished quality of life may be just that: a myth. And, considering how the reality of our society is changing, it is more important than ever to demystify, resignify and give a new look to old age.
According to data published by the World Health Organization, it is expected that by 2050 the population over 60 years of age will be 2.1 billion people worldwide. In Chile, this trend of exponential growth in the number of older people who will integrate our society is replicated. Earlier this year, the Catholic University’s Observatory of Aging published a report confirming that our country has one of the highest aging rates in all of Latin America. Currently 12% of Chileans are over 60 years old and by 2050 it is projected that this age segment will represent 30% of the population.
However, this reality does not necessarily imply that our population will be impaired as a result of aging. Because old age is far from being homogeneous, not everyone ages in the same way. And while the physical wear and tear associated with old age is inevitable, there are habits that people can adopt to reduce or delay it. In the same way, cognitive abilities can also be cultivated and maintained in excellent condition despite the passing of the years. And that is precisely what those known as superagers or people with successful aging have already achieved.
Harvard University has defined superagers as those people who, despite their advanced age, retain the abilities and brain functions of someone 20 or even 30 years younger. A superager is someone who between the ages of 70 and 80 shows a cognitive capacity equivalent to that of a person over 60. Research from the same university has focused on finding the secret for this successful old age that considerably improves the quality of life allowing them to maintain their independence and autonomy even at advanced ages. According to data published by Harvard Medical School, one of the characteristic abilities —and the most decisive for a better quality of life in old age— is the preservation of a good memory.
Viviana García, Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Development of the Elderly at the University of Valparaíso, explains that although there are congenital factors that determine the cognitive capacity of people, this is not the only variable. “There are genetic factors that predispose, but there are clearly other elements of the environment that allow us to have the cognitive capacity of superagers,” explains the Gerópolis specialist. And she mentions that among these, the most relevant are the educational levels to which the person has had access throughout life, participation in social instances that involve interaction with others and deciding to actively invest in good aging. “The investment of time and resources that people make in activities such as reading, staying active doing activities that interest them and motivate them intellectually are very relevant to maintain their capacity and stimulate it.”
The Director of the Center of the U. De Valparaíso also explains that studies have been carried out on long-lived communities in the world concentrated in the so-called blue zones. The experts in charge have identified different traits that centenarians share. “It has been observed that these people cultivate spirituality, perform physical activity and are concerned with maintaining a healthy diet,” says Viviana. In addition, another relevant factor is that they maintain a clear sense and purpose of life even in old age, regardless of what it is. “The reason why they get up every morning may be for some to take care of the garden, for others volunteering, the grandchildren, etc.” The Gerópolis specialist is emphatic in clarifying that there are factors for a good old age that can be managed with the proper knowledge and care. “Although there may be genetic and biological conditions that influence, there are external factors that are just as important for there to be older people who have that good cognitive performance described in superagers.”
Precisely, and as Viviana García explains, successful old age is something we can work on. And questions about how to become a superager have become the focus of researchers around the world. The +60 population of our country will be part of this trend and of what is expected to be discovered about old age. In a study that will begin this year, Harvard researchers together with academics from the University of Chile hope to determine what the characteristics of superagers are. The work of the specialists will focus on answering a question of vital importance that determines the quality of life of many older adults today. These are neurodegenerative diseases associated with old age such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s that have a lower incidence in individuals who are considered superagers. Achieving prevention of these pathologies is another of the elements that would allow reaching a successful old age.
And it is that, given the accelerated growth of the elderly population worldwide, adopting a new look at old age has become tremendously relevant. The growing interest of the scientific community in the subject corroborates this. Because in the face of this new face of society, which will be a growing one, knowing how to improve both physical and mental health conditions has become key.