Unlocking the secrets of SuperAgers

What’s my age, again?

After countless well-intentioned, but long-forgotten, New Year’s resolutions to improve our daily habits, many of us are still looking for the secret to a long, fulfilling life. Keeping our brains healthy and functioning as we age is at the top of the list.

For 98-year-old Elva Gamble, achieving that goal has been, well, a no-brainer.  A retired registered nurse who worked well into her 80s, Gamble still tools around Detroit in her car and maintains an active social schedule. Her memories of growing up in rural Florida are as vivid as ever.

“My mother lived to age 99 and three months, so I’ve got good genes and longevity in my family,” says Gamble, adding that her healthy diet and nursing know-how have helped her stay mentally sharp and physically active for nearly a century.

At 81, Leonora Koyton is also focused on her mental and physical well-being. A former grade-school teacher, she worked as a consultant in English and language arts for the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency until she was 72. These days Koyton takes daily three-mile walks at a mall near her West Bloomfield home and maintains close ties with friends she has known for more than 50 years.

“I’m enjoying life,” she says. “I get up and out every day. I am not sitting at home looking at four walls.”

Robert Burk, 81, a retired aerospace engineer, is an equally enviable octogenarian. He takes care of all the yardwork, gardening, and house maintenance on his two-acre spread in Saline, plays tennis several times a week, and walks daily. Burk has a calculating mind when it comes to financial matters and handles his own taxes and asset management.

“I remember a lot from my childhood, and my daughter has asked me to write down these stories about my life,” he says.

You must remember this

Elderly man wearing a blue cap with maize block M that reads Alumni Band holds a wind instrument and prepares to perform during Homecoming Weekend, 2011.

At halftime during 2011 Homecoming, this musical alumnus joined the Michigan Marching Band. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

Gamble, Koyton, and Burk come from very different backgrounds, but they do share one important trait that has intrigued University of Michigan neuropsychologist Amanda Maher.

They are all “SuperAgers” who, in their 80s and 90s, have superior thinking and memory performance comparable to that of middle-age adults in their 50s and 60s. And they are all participants in a study hosted by the U-M site for the SuperAging Research Initiative.

“Historically, we’ve thought that our thinking skills and memory are going to get worse as we age,” explains Maher, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “SuperAgers are showing us that this cognitive decline is not inevitable ― that not everyone will get memory impairment and develop dementia.

“Instead, we are seeing this remarkable cohort of people over age 80 who are doing extremely well from a cognitive perspective for their age,” she adds. “They are truly remarkable. Their brains move quickly, and they are super sharp. Their memories put mine to shame, for sure.”

Maher is leading the U-M initiative, one of six sites in the U.S. and Canada focused on unearthing clues to the unique biological, genetic, and psychosocial factors contributing to SuperAgers’ resilient cognition. Currently, 30 adults are enrolled in the study at U-M.

“We are studying SuperAgers to find out what is going right with their memory performance, so we can help everybody else enjoy good-quality cognitive years later in life,” says Maher, who has devoted her entire 12-year research career to this effort.

Looking at brain changes

Headshot of smiling caucasian woman with pulled-back hair standing outside in front of greenery.

Amanda Maher, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry.

Are SuperAgers born with good genes that convey long-lasting mental acuity? Or do lifestyle factors such as regular physical exercise, good eating habits, and meaningful social interactions explain their superior memory performance in later years?

From the evidence Maher and other researchers have uncovered thus far, it appears to be a bit of both.

“It’s a little early in the research to know for sure, but we are seeing evidence of brain biology and physiology, genetics, and some lifestyle factors that contribute to SuperAgers’ above-average cognition,” says Maher.

For starters, MRI imaging reveals that the brain structure of SuperAgers ― and the changes that occur in their brains as they age ― are significantly different from those of cognitively normal 80- and 90-year-olds, she says.

“SuperAgers have a thicker cortex, which is the ‘outer bark’ of the brain,” she explains. “What’s more, their rate of overall brain shrinkage with age is less, often half as much, as their cognitively average peers.”

Research also shows that SuperAgers have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that plays a role in cognitive processes, such as motivation, decision-making, and learning.

Furthermore, when the brain cells of SuperAgers were viewed with a microscope, researchers found a much greater density of large, specialized neurons (called Von Economo neurons), which are associated with social-emotional functioning and social relationships.

Assessing Alzheimer’s risk factors

Using a special Alzheimer’s Disease Polygenic Hazard Score, researchers can distinguish individuals who have certain genetic variants that put them at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s.

Surprisingly, when SuperAgers and their cognitively average peers are evaluated using this research metric, the scores of the two groups are not significantly different.

Genetic variables suggest SuperAgers are at the same risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease as elderly participants who serve as controls in our studies,” Maher says. “These findings do not explain why SuperAgers have such good memory performance.”

But comparing the brain cells of the SuperAgers and the control group under a microscope revealed one important difference. SuperAgers had fewer abnormal formations of protein within the nerve cells of their brains. These so-called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles are associated with Alzheimer’s pathology.

There was no difference, however, between the two groups in amyloid plaques, which are sticky clumps of material also considered to be a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

“We’re taking a closer look at these findings in our research,” Maher says.

Maintaining strong social relationships

Compared to cognitively average adults in their 80s and 90s, SuperAgers appear to have warmer, more-trusting, higher-quality relationships with other people.

“SuperAgers’ social networks are not necessarily larger, but the quality of their relationships seems to be more positive and stronger,” Maher reports. “They also are more physically active and less sedentary during the day.”

Resilience is another characteristic that distinguishes SuperAgers. Participants at other study sites have included a Holocaust survivor and a single mother who struggled to raise her children alone.

“Often, these are individuals who have not had easy lives,” Maher says. “Some have persevered through significant life challenges. That trait is difficult to quantify, however.”

No magic pill

A group photo of racially diverse elderly people dressed in bright colors, smiling, and flashing peace signs.

These SuperAgers are participating in the Chicago-based study. (Image courtesy of the SuperAging Research Initiative.)

There is no magic pill for slowing or stopping cognitive decline and memory loss as people age. At least, not yet.

But Maher is hopeful her work with the SuperAging Research Initiative will shed light on the factors that enable certain individuals to stay mentally sharp, retain their memories, and pursue active, meaningful lives well into their 80s, 90s ― and even after they hit 100 years of age. Ultimately, these findings may lead to the effective prevention and treatment of cognitive impairment in older adults.

“SuperAgers are showing us it’s possible to enjoy good cognition as we age,” Maher says. “This is important in a society where we have a negative association with getting older.”

(The lead image features four SuperAgers participating in the research initiative in Chicago. Image courtesy of the SuperAging Research Initiative.)


  1. Marjorie Scott - 1959

    I had a CT scan and MRI and the neurologist told me my brain had very little shrinkage and I’d should have no fear of dementia. If and when I return to him could he tell me if I would qualify as a super ager?


  2. Ismael Cantu - 1975

    This article begins to give insights as to why the cognitive and physiological gaps exist among individuals who were raised under similar conditions. My comparisons are with individuals in my age group, who are between 77 years to 80 years of age. There is a definite correlation between those that lived an active physical and cognitively active life and those that were more passive. This article begins to shed light on the issue of whether “super aging” is totally genetic, which many believe. The research findings n this article opens under-studied factors that are controllable, such as physical activity, the importance of what we nourish our bodies with, and the very important function of socializing and keeping a positive outlook which may be as important as genetic factors. This article impacted me, since I have kept by jogging and power walking routine at distances of three to four miles daily going on over 40 years, kept up positive social interactions, but will admit that my eating habits need improvement. When compared to individuals my age, I can quickly see the impact of factors cited on gait, mental capacity, and interaction differences. The findings in this research has the potential of impacting future generations as this research develops through the years.


  3. Michele W Missner - 1966 BA, 1968 MLS

    Most of our friends are about 80, some older some younger. Never thought of myself as a superager


  4. Robert Albritton - BS , 1965 Master, 1970, Some PHD work in 1971,72

    I’m 80. I will be 81 in August and I agree, there is something going on with being active. Wow! I’m a “Superager”


  5. Don Surath - 1967


    I’m 79 and wonder if there is a way to participate in your program remotely from San Francisco.

    My mom lived to 94 and her father, 95.

    I have an active social life and workout in my condo almost daily.

    Your thoughts?


    Don Surath


  6. Dennis Vennen - 1966

    I wonder if there could be some interesting findings by looking at superagers who remain in the work force. I will turn 80 in a month and have only thought about retirement when by boss asked me about my plans a couple of years ago. I have accumulated a mix of managerial and technical talents over 50 years of involvement at all levels in the construction industry and in my current Senior VP position with a national development company, I enjoy a level of respect and reliance on my opinions that motivates me to continue taking classes, innovating, sharing ideas, and supporting my colleagues as they support me. I may be one of the lucky ones, as many of my contemporaries are only employable as clerks at Home Depot and the like. Among my wonderments is why some people can’t wait to retire and some never even think about it.


  7. Roger Goldman - BA 63; JD66

    I am 82 still practicing law and enjoying the work as well as my wonderful wife and my 10 grandchildren. Use it or lose it!!



  8. Stan Stoller - 63

    Now 87, i worked until 80 in the profession for which i was trained at michigan. My wife of 66 years and i are prolific readers. I still work, not in my trained profession, and i begin every day at 4:30 a.m.


  9. John Ipson - 59ME

    Ran Detroit marathon 2 times 45 years ago. Now only walking slowly 2 miles per day. I think I am mentally still sharp. 87


  10. Sue Bradley Lutz - 1967

    Hi I am a 79 year old retired Pediatric Physical Therapist. I am a widow in a relationship with a Widower, He is a retired University of Wisconsin Professor. We are both racing Sailboats. I have helped to found a Therapuetic Horseback riding NFP organization. I ride my horse weekly when I am not traveling. I play tennis and play bridge weekly. My Memory was a mess right after my husband died and then covid hit. Now my memory has improved. I attribute this to being in a committed relationship. We travel the world and he has introduced me to camping. We play word games nightly and read extensively. I hope to be a Super ager when I grow u Thanks, Sue


  11. Ronald Modreski - 1965 BSEME, 1968 MBA

    I really found this article very interesting. I will be 82 in June. I retired from the Aerospace and Defense Industry as a senior executive in my late 50’s. I did management consulting for 5-6 years and then decided to join a number of non profit and community boards, on most which I am still active today. My mother lived to be 97 and an uncle 100, so I thought I had pretty good genes Up until 2 years ago I was very active with golf and walking with my wife (also bike riding). I started having numbness in my feet and lower legs. It appears that arthritis had built up in my lower spine causing neuropathy (which now limits my walking and golf). I get PT which helps me manage it. My mother did crossword puzzles and read a lot in her 80’s and 90’s (which I am now doing). I am curious if your study of these SuperAgers include people like myself that get aging problem(like arthritis that is hereditary) and how they “manage it”.My cognitive powers and memory are still excellent. I also find that social contact with lots of people (young and middle age) keep me sharp and learning about technology that was not invented when I got my engineering degree. I am also active at the College of Engineering and CS at both U of M Dearborn and Grand Valley State Univ in Grand Rapids where I live. I would be interested in participating in your study. Ron


  12. Chris Campbell - Rackham, '72; Law, '75

    Like several other commenters, I am fortunate to be working at 76. Next year I’ll reach 50 years of practicing law. We cover a large geographic area so much of my initial communication is by telephone. The most common comment when meeting clients is “You sound a lot younger on the phone.” I am a year-round bike commuter in northern lower Michigan. I have had a regular after-work walking route for many years, temporarily on hiatus for Achilles tendon recovery. Having a job means intellectual challenge, social engagement, and a rewarding feeling of being useful.

    I have always felt sorry for people who spend their working lives thinking about retirement so they can do nothing and play golf (aren’t those the same thing?). Sometimes on weekends I’ll think that having lots more free time to pursue my many interests would be great, but having a real job gives some structure to the weekdays and makes me answer the morning alarm clock.

    Some of my work is with disability cases, and I am regularly reminded of the great good fortune in having favorable genetic inheritance and a sturdy, functional body. There is a component of luck. But those of us with good luck should also take care to augment the luck with positive diets and physical and mental activity.


  13. GLENN MARSHALL - 1955E

    Good friends, regular sleep, active exercise daily, nourishing food; all are part of my daily life,
    I am a volunteer driver for Seniors.
    at 91 don’t think of myself as a super anything, but expect to live to be 100 and still drive.


  14. Clint Harris - 72+ 74 MArch

    As a child growing up in the 50’s, my parents taught my sister and me that all children were born equal and the only thing was how we were raised. The ratio I recall was 90% nurture / 10% nature. I believed that until my observations did not conform to that belief – about the same time as I entered Michigan as a freshman in 1968.
    1980’s research, including the famous U-Minnesota Twins and Family Research, challenged the ratio as it shifted toward 10% nurture / 90% nature. That seemed to fit my belief when we became parents.
    After cracking DNA in 1990 and the human genome sequence in the 00’s, gene study started to reveal that our environment could turn on and off specific genes to cope with our own micro-environment.

    Two more decades of breakthroughs has revealed that that our choices and lifestyles turn off and on those same genes to our pleasure(?) or to cope with our environment. At the recent Longevity Summit in The Villages, Fl, Dr. Eric Verdin, MD stated his belief that our own choices made up about 93% of the gene triggers! His conclusion of what drives aging is startling: 10% nurture / 7% nature (DNA) / 83% personal choices and lifestyle. (Verdin did not address nurturing, but I inserted the 10% because I hope I had some positive influence on my children’s lives.)

    The Summit had five exceptional doctors explain their research, conclusions, and expectations. Dr. Mike Roizen, MD author of The Great Aging Reboot boldly stated that the first human to live 150 years has already been born! Maybe she is our own Amanda Maher working on the UM initiative!

    If you selected your parents well and avoided death from their disadvantaged DNA contributions, bad auto accidents (yes, me), or fatal predilections and habits, you are alive today. I am ecstatically happy for you!

    Forever, Go Blue.
    Clint Harris


  15. Delia DeBuc - 22

    Interesting study results. Congrats!

    I do research on AD- eye biomarkers and wonder how the comorbidities (if any) compared between the groups, and whether the subjects have vision impairment/low vision/retinal diseases.
    Go Blue!


  16. sue wrzesinski - 1966

    I find this study very interesting, as I play bridge with a 95 year old and 65 year old in same group….having such diverse ages and consequently interests definitely keeps all of us “young”. But, now, we will be superagers.
    Golf is a big part of my life as well,. And, I have a large group of peers, and we are amazed to be 80 this year.
    I would be glad to be part of a study, if you need more volunteers.


  17. Dave T - 1976

    I have been using Brain Exercises from Posit’s BrainHQ which is provided at NO COST from my Medicare Insurance. After attending several Posit Science Brain Zoom seminars, they pointed out Brain Plasticity exercises can be one way to improve memory and brain speed. Posit Science was created after Dr. Michael Merzenich developed Cochlear Implants with his team many years ago while they studied the brain’s ability to grow and maintain health. If you want to read about how the science of Brain Plasticity has changed the lives of many people with diseases or brain injuries, read Dr. Merzenich’s book “Soft-Wired”. Explore the book at http://www.soft-wired.com. The BrainHQ website offers a free sample of their Brain Exercises (more like Brain Games which I find to be fun) see https://www.brainhq.com/
    PS I have NO affiliation to any of these organizations 🙂


  18. John Koerner - 1963, 1972 (ABD)

    Very interested in the study and all of the comments folks have left. It seems that by no particular design save my own upbringing, education, and lifestyle I mirror many of the activities of those responding to the article. Both of my parents were very active and reasonably healthy (though not without problems-my dad had two by-pass surgeries, but made it to 931/2 and mom just short of 95), they never thought of themselves as old even while complaining about getting old. I am similar, simply acknowledging some limitations while still doing everything I used to do. Few contemporaries are around to join me, so I mostly interact with younger folks – run/jog/walk, accept responsibilities for major activities (President, Chairman, etc), enjoy festivities like four days at Oktoberfest in Germany!!


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