- Carol Siegler, 85, has kept her memory sharp as she ages — all 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 keeping to a routine can be healthy for the brain.
Scientists are studying the behavior of “SuperAgers” — defined by Northwestern as a rare group of elders who have the brains of people 30 years younger than them — to find out how humans can keep their memory sharp as they get older.
Eating plants and whole foods, exercising regularly, and maintaining social bonds are all researched-backed ways to stay sharp in old age.
But, perhaps surprisingly, the lifestyles of SuperAgers can vary widely, cognitive neuroscientist and SuperAgers researcher Emily Rogalski told Insider. Based on anecdotal data, Rogalski said some SuperAgers are “super exercisers,” but others became more active later in life. The same goes for diet, Rogalski said some SuperAgers are health nuts while others admit to have eaten too many TV dinners growing up.
Take Carol Siegler, a Chicago-area based SuperAger who has applied to be on Jeopardy! twice. Siegler, one of these rare, exceptional agers, told Insider she doesn’t have a strict exercise routine or a superfood-only diet.
Siegler said she wakes up at an “average time” and has an “average breakfast” with meals like oatmeal, omelets, and french toast. The 85-year-old said she’ll put coffee on first thing in the morning, and play Wordle or the New York Times Spelling Bee as she waits for it to brew — but only if she “feels like it.”
The SuperAger said she began incorporating more plant-based meals recently, but she wouldn’t say she follows any sort of diet. She tries not to snack or keep junk food in the house, but doesn’t restrict herself beyond that.
As for exercise, Siegler said she began regularly working out more than a year ago, prompted by the death of her husband. Siegler goes to chair yoga classes twice a week and using her hospital’s gym to do other exercises on other days. She had played college volleyball, but for much of her adult life watched on the sideline as her husband and kids worked out.
“I don’t have a specific routine, I just do sort of the average things that people do,” she 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 involves not falling into a rut
Siegler’s lack of a strict exercise routine or dietary plan might appear counterintuitive, but Rogalski said the constant change might be a reason why she’s stayed so sharp.
“Our brains actually likes change,” Rogalski said. “Changing things up and having some variation helps to keep us on our toes.”
The human brain has evolved to stay attuned to the unusual or challenging aspects in our environment, Rogalski said. The tendency goes back to our early human days, when people would need to listen for a rustling in the woods that could signal a snake or bear.
“Noticing those differences helps protect us,” Rogalski added.
One common pattern among SuperAgers is their tendency to challenge themselves with reading new books, playing puzzles and mind games, or learning new things, Rogalski and other researchers studying these people have found.
Siegler keeps her mind sharp through puzzles and reading. She bought three big books of crossword puzzles and won an online contest for her age group. She also plays Wordle and Sudoku on her iPad and she enjoys watching David Attenborough documentaries and keeps up with the daily news and stock market.
“I like learning things,” she said. “I was always the little kid who read everything there was.”
But, again, Siegler doesn’t have too many rules around her mental diet. She keeps a puzzle book by her bed and will sometimes play it at night, and other times she won’t.
Instead of following a strict plan everyday, Siegler encourages other people who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle to frequently change up your routine. For instance, instead of going scheduled walks, Siegler sneaks in extra steps by parking far away from the grocery store or library, or taking small loads of laundry to and from the machine.
“You get into a groove and if you stay too long it’s a rut, then it’s a trench, then it’s a tunnel,” Siegler said. “Just keep turning your head and looking around.”