- Carol Siegler, 85, kept her memory sharp as she aged, without a special diet or routine.
- Scientists are studying the brains and behaviors of SuperAgers to better understand cognitive decline.
- Cognitive neuroscientist Emily Rogalski says not sticking to a routine can be healthy for the brain.
To find out how people can keep their memories sharp as they age, scientists are studying the behavior of “Super-Aging” — defined by Northwestern as a rare group of seniors who have the brains of people 30 years younger than them.
Eating plants and whole foods, exercising regularly, and maintaining social bonds are researched supported ways to stay fit in old age.
But, perhaps surprisingly, SuperAgers’ lifestyles can vary greatly, cognitive neuroscientist and SuperAgers researcher Emily Rogalski told Insider. Based on the anecdotal data, Rogalski said some SuperAgers are “super exercisers” but others become more active later in life. The same goes for dieting, with Rogalski saying that some SuperAgers are health freaks, while others admit they ate a lot of TV food growing up.
Take Carol Siegler, a Chicago-based SuperAger applying to become one. Danger! two times. Siegler, one of these rare, exceptional seniors, told Insider that she doesn’t have a strict exercise routine or a superfood-only diet.
Siegler said she wakes up at an “average hour” and eats an “average breakfast” of oatmeal, omelet and French toast. The 85-year-old said he’d pour coffee first thing in the morning and play Wordle or the New York Times Spelling Bee while waiting for it to brew – but only “if he feels like it”.
SuperAger said she’s recently started eating more plant-based foods, but didn’t say she’s following any diets. He tries not to snack or keep junk food at home, but does not restrict himself beyond that.
As for exercise, Siegler said she started working out regularly just over a year ago, with her husband’s death. Siegler goes to yoga classes twice a week and uses the hospital gym other days to do other exercises. She played volleyball in college, but for most of her adult life she watched as her husband and children played sports.
“I don’t have a set routine, I just do the average stuff people do,” he told Insider. “I go to bed, I don’t take a lot of medication, I don’t have a special diet.”
Keeping your mind sharp includes not falling into a monotony
It may seem counterintuitive that Siegler doesn’t have a strict exercise routine or diet plan, but Rogalski said the constant change may be one reason he stays so sharp.
“Our brain actually likes change,” said Rogalski. “To change things up and have some variation helps us stay on our toes.”
Rogalski said the human brain has evolved to adapt to unusual or challenging aspects of our environment. The trend goes back to our earliest human days, when humans needed to listen for a rustle in the woods that could indicate a snake or bear.
“Recognizing these differences helps protect us,” added Rogalski.
Rogalski and other researchers studying these people have found that a common pattern among SuperAgers is their tendency to challenge themselves by reading new books, playing puzzles and mind games, or learning new things.
Siegler keeps his mind sharp through puzzles and reading. He bought three large crossword puzzle books and won an online competition for his age group. He also plays Wordle and Sudoku on his iPad and enjoys watching David Attenborough documentaries and follows the daily news and stock market.
“I love learning things,” she said. “I was a little kid who always read everything that was out there.”
But still, Siegler doesn’t have many rules regarding his mental diet. He keeps a puzzle book by his bed and sometimes plays it at night and sometimes he doesn’t.
Siegler encourages other people who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle rather than following a strict plan every day, to change your routine frequently. For example, instead of taking scheduled walks, Siegler takes extra steps by parking away from the grocery store or library, or taking small loads of laundry into the machine.
“You go into a gutter and if you stay too long it’s a rut, then a ditch, then a tunnel,” Siegler said. “Keep turning your head and looking around.”