Your Best Life: Will you be a super-ager?


Achy joints, memory issues, and declining vigor are all a normal part of aging, right? More and more people are questioning this assumption, through research on aging and longevity, so-called “Blue Zones,” “super-agers” and personal experiments by biohackers and fitness geeks. The fact that you can find doctors who specialize in longevity, watch documentaries on living well past your 80s, and read articles like this one attest to the increased interest and belief in thriving as we age.


Belief, or at least mindset, may be an important component to succeeding in having a longer, healthier life. Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychiatry professor, conducted a fascinating study in 1981 that brought the mind-body connection into the spotlight. After a battery of assessments including vision, muscle strength and cognition, she brought eight male subjects in their 70s to a secluded monastery for a five-day retreat in the woods. When they entered, they went into a “time warp,” said the New York Times Magazine in an article. Everything inside, from the music, television, books and magazines, was selected to evoke 1959. Langer was testing her premise, contrary to the model of the day that sickness only comes from external factors like viruses, that the body also responds to mental “primers” that could make it sick – or well. 

The men were asked to embody their younger selves, including bringing their belongings upstairs. They wore vintage clothing and displayed pictures of their younger selves and chatted about the news from 1959 – in the present tense. A game of touch-football broke out one day. At the end, their markers improved measurably. They walked taller, moved better, and their vision improved. In 2010 The BBC fashioned a recreation of the experiment using aging celebrities – kind of early reality TV - called “The Young Ones,” showing similar results. The Times said, “They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.” Langer said by putting their mind in an earlier time, “their bodies went along for the ride.” 

By flipping the negative placebo effect of our typical predictions of aging, these subjects told themselves to expect youth and vigor. It may be helpful to consider what you are expecting of your body and mind in your thoughts and actions? By not taking the stairs, or carrying your own luggage, for example, you are telling your body it’s too hard for you. 


Just like bodybuilding, your mindset will strengthen with practice. Biohacker/podcaster Dave Asprey, author of “Superhuman: The Bulletproof Plan to Age Backward and Maybe Live Forever,” regularly announces his goal to live to 180, towards which he takes numerous supplements, uses cutting-edge technology and strives for the most efficient workouts. While we may not all be able to have professional grade infrared light machines and cold plunges at home, you can apply the mindset. 

Our bodies run on a “use it or lose it” program.  Muscles – and neural pathways – that are unused become obsolete. When it comes to movement, using appropriate modifications for your fitness level, ask your body to do more than is easy. Walk an extra block, do some leg lifts or squats between meetings, and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Carrying something heavy today will prepare you to be able to raise your grandkids overhead tomorrow.  

Asprey says given the rampant levels of obesity and inflammatory disease like diabetes and Alzheimer’s in the U.S., you may not want to be what physicians now consider “normal” for your age.  Striving for the biomarkers of a younger person might be better. It’s a tiny thing, but I tell my Fitbit that I’m 30 so when I compare my sleep score it’s trying to get me to sleep like a person twenty years younger biologically. 

There are tests you can take to determine your biological age which include inflammatory markers and heart-rate-variability. You can be 55 chronologically but 65 physically. Those markers can often be improved via nutrition and lifestyle. 


Dan Buettner’s book “Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from People Who’ve Lived the Longest” and its attendant Netflix special, has captured the collective imagination with themes for living not only longer but happier. Studying places with statistically high numbers of people well over 80 such as Sardinia, Italy, Ikaria, Greece, Okinawa, Japan and Loma Linda in California, Buettner discovered repeating tendencies across varied cultures.  Regular movement, feelings of purpose and intention, and social ties were central.  Daily movement was not necessarily intense, but consistent. It could be tending your garden, carrying groceries uphill, walking to see your neighbor. Purpose might be anything that drives you with excitement – engaging with your children, thrilling to a hobby or your job, or working towards a long-term goal.

They include:

• Downshift – reducing stress via napping, exercise, prayer, and even happy hour

• Purpose – having a reason for being that motivates you daily

• Eating Wisely – diets varied, but many included diverse, plant-forward meals, moderate alcohol, and consuming moderate amounts.

• Connection – strong social networks knit by family, friends, neighbors and often faith-based community 

Buettner continued to research ways to optimize living environments via what he calls the “life radius,” examining ways to build in these lifestyles to our communities by encouraging community, activity and healthy eating through conscious urban planning and policy.  A pilot project with the AARP in Albert Lea, Minnesota gave participants an expected 3-year life expectancy boost after one year of implemented changes such as walking groups and workshops on purpose.

A recent study released on “Super-Agers” in the Journal of Neuroscience looks at the estimated 10-percent of people who are over 80 years old chronologically, but their brains have the appearance of someone 20-30 years younger. Compared to their peers, their hippocampi and entorhinal cortices were more robust, and frontal regions related to cognition showed stronger connectivity. Their mobility, blood pressure and glucose metabolism were better too. 

However, it seems there was no clear way to reverse engineer the path to becoming a super-ager, no magic bullet. Their diets, sleep, and exercise levels showed little commonality, although many were physically active in middle age. However, like Buettner, the researchers found these subjects shared a strong sense of social connection. The Times article concludes, however, that overall, moving more, eating more “real” unprocessed foods, and nurturing purpose and social ties all foster a long and happy life. 

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