Superagers Pursue Challenges with Gusto, Harvard Study Finds

'Superaging' is linked to: Working until it hurts, and then pushing a bit more.

Posted Jan 03, 2017

Michele Paccione/Shutterstoc
Source: Michele Paccione/Shutterstock

My mother—who is 80 years old but has the mental capacity and physical energy of someone half her age—emailed me at the crack of dawn this morning. She asked, "Chris, have you read the New York Times Sunday Review piece, "How to Become a Superager," by Lisa Feldman Barrett based on her latest research at Harvard Medical School?" (Both of my parents spent much of their careers working at HMS in different capacities. My mom keeps her antennae up for any former colleagues' research.) 

One of the main takeaways from the superaging research being conducted at Harvard is that superagers appear to grin and bear it despite the unpleasant "ouch factor" of pushing against one's physical and mental limits. Regardless of discomfort or if it hurts, superagers seem to keep doing something challenging until they've completed the task at hand. Barrett makes the analogy that superagers approach painful challenges much like a Marine who is tough-as-nails. 

In her email this morning, my mom also asked, "Have you written a Psychology Today blog post based on Barrett's "Superaging" study about youthful brains in older adults, that was published in The Journal of Neuroscience yet? If so, please send me the link." 

The quick email response to both of mother's questions would be, "Thanks for sharing this! Haven't written about it yet. Talk soon." But, I was curious to discuss what my mom thought of the researchers' conclusions about superaging—and how she filtered this research through the lens of her daily life—so, I called her immediately. During our hour-long conversation, my mother shared many insights about various 'superager' lifestyle habits she'd inadvertently pursued as a senior citizen, as well as those of her mother, father, and grandparents that may have unwittingly preserved their brain function into old age. 

I highly recommend sharing the "How to Become a Superager" article with family members and friends. Then, discussing various ways to inspire one another to be less complacent and push into the discomfort or pain of being outside your comfort zones, regardless of your age. 

Superagers Tackle Mental and Physical Challenges with Vim and Vigor

My favorite paragraph from Barrett's Superaging article reminded me of the hypothesis that a sense of entitlement without a commitment to perseverance can lead to existential malcontent. In her New York Times article, Barrett writes, 

"In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it."

Barrett published the 2016 superaging study along with senior co-author Bradford Dickerson and colleagues based on their ongoing Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) research. Their study focused on what lifestyle habits among people ages 60 to 80 are associated with maintaining neural networks and brain structures that support a superager's extraordinarily youthful cognitive function into older age. 

The fMRI imaging from super-agers and a control group of normal-agers showed that pushing beyond one's physical and mental comfort zones as you age appears to preserve the default mode and salience networks while bulking up brain regions such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula. 

Interestingly, it appears that laborious physical challenges or wrestling to solve an enigmatic riddle don't necessarily benefit brain regions that are typically associated with "cognitive" or executive functions such as the prefrontal cortex. Instead, the neuroimaging suggests that doing something to the point of mental or physical discomfort with a 'bring it on' attitude has a neuroprotective impact on "emotional" hubs of the brain that serve many functions including coordinating all five senses into a singular cohesive experience.

Creating Flow Makes Your "Need For Achievement" a Joyful Pursuit

Since I was a young adult, I've identified with the "Need for Achievement" (N-Ach) theory that was pioneered by the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s, and popularized by American psychologist David McClelland through leadership courses at the Harvard Business School and beyond starting in the 1960s.

Typically, need for achievement personality types are driven by intense, prolonged, and repeated efforts to accomplish something challenging or difficult. Generally, someone with N-Ach traits will work with a singleness of purpose towards a high and lofty goal with an unflinching determination to succeed regardless of the mental or physical toll. 

As someone with N-Ach tendencies, I can attest to the fact that (for me) if there is no real struggle, it makes a 'challenge' seem boring and not much fun. I can also attest to the fact that having a same-sex competition to 'out do' your mother or father can be healthy motivation to push against your limits and achieve more in the long run.

For example, my father was a nationally ranked tennis player, neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and author of The Fabric of Mind. My dad was a classic superachiever. His ability to succeed in both mental and physical pursuits subconsciously pushed me to attempt to do the same and live up to his expectations by achieving my full potential. 

In my book acknowledgments for The Athlete's Way, I thank my father saying, "Thanks for passing on your dynamic—albeit very intense—Viking genes. For showing me that hanging on to the edge of a cliff and pulling oneself up by one’s fingernails, with one hand tied behind the back, is guaranteed to “add sweet perfume to the task." You make it look easy, always."

The metaphor of barely hanging onto a cliff by your fingernails with the odds stacked against you, but prevailing nonetheless, represented a mindset that my father spoke about often. This imagery summed up his gestalt and chutzpah to always take the bull by the horns and seize the day. The idea of 'adding perfume to the task' by taking on extreme challenges also relates to ways that someone can use a visualization to romanticize the struggle of pushing against your limits to cope with discomfort. 

Source: mary981/Shutterstock

Anecdotally, one of the stories about N-Ach research is that when McClelland's lab was trying to measure someone's degree of need for achievement, they would have participants play a game of horseshoes to see how various people responded. Did someone constantly play it safe or inherently push against his or her limits by stepping farther away from the target? If someone preferred to stand in the same spot racking up points by keeping the level of challenge low, they would be rated as not having high N-Ach characteristics.

Ultimately, McClelland found that the secret to harnessing a need for achievement most constructively was to find a sweet spot that was challenging enough to improve your skills but not overwhelming. The trick was to keep practicing your horseshoe toss from a distance that was just on the cusp of being slightly too difficult. Once the challenge started to feel too easy, the player would be coached to take a step back. By doing this religiously, both your skill set and the level of challenge increase in tandem, which is the key to mastery. 

As a long-distance endurance athlete, I applied McClelland's horseshoe wisdom by constantly raising the bar and pushing against my own limits by running, biking, and swimming slightly farther and farther distances whenever sport or competition started to seem easy. This is how I eventually went on to break a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles in 24 hours on a treadmill.

Again, I realized early on that by finding the sweet spot where my skills just barely matched the level of challenge enabled me to stay hyper-focused to the point of losing myself in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as the "flow channel" or being in the zone. 

My father constantly pushed all of his children to keep our minds and bodies sharp and to optimize our full human potential. He rarely gave anyone praise or accolades unless you hit it out of the park. He'd be horrified by a twenty-first-century coddling parental style of giving trophies for sub-par performance.

Although my dad tended to set the bar unreasonably high, at the end of the day, I'm grateful that he did. Yes. The periods of low self-esteem and self-loathing I experienced as a kid due to this parenting style were tough. But, now, my brain is hardwired to keep pushing against my limits regardless of discomfort, which appears to be a key to superaging. I will always feel as if I'm a day away from where I need to be, which is both a blessing and a curse.

As another example of his parenting style, when I was an elite-level athlete training up to 9-hours a day and my 'sound mind in a sound body' homeostasis was out of balance, my father became frustrated and critical of my lack of cerebral pursuits. He could be harsh. At the peak of my athletic achievements instead of being congratulatory, he'd say, "Chris, there are major regions of your brain that you're forgetting to flex and they're going to turn into mush." 

Now that I'm retired from sports, I strive to push against my cognitive limits as a writer. (Probably because I have a chip on my shoulder to prove that my brain did not turn to mush and to make my late father proud). As a real-time example, in writing this blog post I'm painfully struggling to connect a variety of empirical evidence, weave it into a narrative with some storytelling elements along with actionable advice while creating a logical structure that will be engaging, conversational, and prevent your eyes from glazing over. Trust me. It's not happening easily and the process sort of hurts. That said, whether or not I'm succeeding, at least the 'superager' regions of my brain are getting a workout! ;-)  

Becoming a Superager May Be a Blend of Nature and Nurture

Before I'd ever heard the term "superager" (which was coined by neurologist Marsel Mesulam) I realized that my mother's lifestyle choices and fun-loving approach to hard work played a part in keeping her mind and body decades younger than her 80+ years.

My mom has always fueled her joie de vivre by staying adventurous and pushing beyond her comfort zones. Throughout her lifespan, she's inherently done things other superagers seem to do....whether it's skiing black diamond trails, learning a new language, mastering ancient ceramic arts, plein air painting, local book club, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience with her Quaker friends, or refusing to hire someone else to shovel the snow in her driveway. 

In 2013, I wrote about some of mom's "superager" lifestyle habits in a Psychology Today blog post, "Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Keeps You Sharp" based on research published in the journal Psychological Science. Lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas described her findings in a statement to APS:

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.

The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough. The three learning groups were pushed very hard to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved.”

During our conversation this morning, my mom and I hypothesized about how much of a role genetics and environment might play in someone becoming a superager. Of course, it's always going to a blend of nature and nurture. For example, the lifestyle habits and inherent "need for achievement" regardless of making money or wanting power were a part of both my mother and father's DNA. And, I believe my parents passed these traits on to me both as role models and through the same genes that gave them each this temperament. 

As I've written about in other blog posts about grit and resilience, the mother of my 9-year-old daughter hails from Finland where Sisu—which means that you 'fight to the finish and never give up' no matter what—is deeply embedded in the Finnish psyche. Our daughter is being raised with a type of 'bring it on' mentality towards tackling adverse challenges with gusto and not expecting an easy ride. But, this approach is also being tempered to avoid the pressure of unrealistic expectations backfiring. Or perpetuating any feelings of shame, like I experienced when my dad and dean at boarding school realized I would never become a member of their 'old boys' club' because I didn't fit the cookie-cutter mold of the status quo. 

Near the end of our conversation earlier today, my mom and I were laughing about how the superager article reminded us both of her favorite song from Pippin, "No Time At All." When my mom turned 40 in the mid-70s, our family went to see Pippin on Broadway. The soundtrack was in heavy rotation on the 8-Track player in our Chevy station wagon for many years to follow.

Whenever "No Time at All" sung by Irene Ryan would play on the car stereo, my mother would crank up the volume and croon along to the lyrics, "I've never wondered if I was afraid when there was a challenge to take . . . I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die" with infectious glee and irreverent delight. This song remains an anthem for me and one of my all-time favorite running songs. 

If you need a song to add to a playlist that helps you kickstart (or stick with) a "superager" approach to pursuing physical and mental challenges with zeal, maybe this song can become an anthem for you, too? 


F. W. Sun, M. R. Stepanovic, J. Andreano, L. F. Barrett, A. Touroutoglou, B. C. Dickerson. Youthful Brains in Older Adults: Preserved Neuroanatomy in the Default Mode and Salience Networks Contributes to Youthful Memory in Superaging. Journal of Neuroscience, 2016; 36 (37): 9659 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1492-16.2016

Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2014). The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project. Psychological Science, 25(1), 103-112. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613499592