6 Secrets of Super-Agers

By Laurie Tarkan |

Want to join the ranks of this enviable group? Experts who study them say these are the lifestyle choices that can help you live a longer, healthier life.

two senior women nordic walking for a story on the secrets of super agers

Every now and then, you hear about someone who celebrated their 100th birthday. But reaching that milestone is not as rare as you may think. There are currently an estimated 101,000 centenarians among us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that number is expected to grow to more than 420,000 in 30 years.

Equally remarkable — but harder to count — are so-called super-agers. These are the women and men who, in their 80s and 90s, razzle-dazzle us with their sharp wit and physical prowess.

There’s no question that genetics play a role in how long you live. But it’s not the whole story.

Studies show that family history explains about 30% of longevity, and that number may be even higher for the people who do live to a very old age, says Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D. He is the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Still, he says, “Environment and behaviors seem to be very strong predictors of longevity.”

What Makes Someone a Super-Ager?

The term describes people in their 80s and beyond whose minds are as sharp as those at least three decades younger, according to researchers at Northwestern University Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease. The NIA also notes that super-agers also have the physical capabilities of those much younger.

Actress Betty White was perhaps the best-known super-ager. (White died in 2021 at age 99.) Another example is 93-year-old Richard Morgan, a four-time master world champion indoor rower. In 2023, Morgan showed researchers he could go stroke-for-stroke with healthy 30- and 40-somethings.

The kicker? Morgan didn’t start exercising until he was 73. (Morgan is the focus of a 2023 case study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology that looked at the aging benefits of late-life exercise.)

In other words, super-agers defy expectations.

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The 6 Habits of Super-Agers

Researchers are actively looking into the secret sauce of super-agers. What’s emerged so far is that focusing on a doable handful of healthy habits can help you extend your lifespan.

Check out the top ways you can improve your chances of living a long, enjoyable life.

1. Embrace Exercise

If 90-year-old Dot Sowerby can run a half marathon — and break national records in her age bracket (yes, there is a 90+ bracket) — that opens the door to what kind of exercise is possible as you live to be a super-ager.

And even if you’re not up for that level of activity, exercise in general can help you stay strong, keep your joints healthy and prevent falls. All of which can help you add years to your life. Moving around also lowers your risk of heart and circulatory diseases and helps prevent other chronic diseases, like diabetes, osteoporosis and dementia.

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine estimated that increasing moderate-to-vigorous activity by just 10 minutes a day would prevent more than 110,000 deaths each year in adults aged 40 to 85. If older adults bumped it up to 30 minutes a day, more than 270,000 annual deaths could be avoided.

Try this for a longer life: Aim for 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, but even doing 10 to 20 minutes of moderate activity is more beneficial to your longevity than staying sedentary. Dr. Ferrucci says to do a mix of both aerobic (or cardio) and resistance exercise. Try weight-bearing exercises like strength training, walking or dancing to keep muscles and bones strong.

Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Class: 8-Minute Cardio Flow Workout for Seniors

2. Follow the Mediterranean Diet

As it turns out, that old apple-a-day adage from our childhood was right. Regularly eating fruits and vegetables can help you live longer. And studies show that the plant-forward Mediterranean diet in particular can add years to your life.

It’s never too late to start following that eating style. One study found that switching to the Mediterranean diet at age 60 could add eight years to your life. It can also improve the quality of life you have right now.

“Accumulating evidence suggests the Mediterranean diet affects many different outcomes, including cognitive decline, metabolic diseases and hypertension,” says Dr. Ferrucci.

Try this for a longer life: To eat the Mediterranean way, focus on feeding yourself fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil and fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. It’s also key to reduce your intake of red and processed meats, sugar and refined grains.

And variety within these food categories is also very important.

“Most scientists believe that it is balance between the different elements [of this diet] that is beneficial,” says Dr. Ferrucci.

3. Prioritize Good Sleep

Quality sleep can be elusive for older adults. According to the Sleep Foundation, people aged 60 and older are more susceptible to insomnia. Seniors are at higher risk of medical conditions that can cause poor sleep, such as arthritis and sleep apnea. And our internal circadian clocks can also change at this time of life.

Sleep helps your brain and body recover from the day’s stressors, and that nightly recovery helps keep you healthy. Studies have found that poor sleep can contribute to heart disease, obesity and diabetes — all of which can drastically shorten your life.

Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that men who scored higher on several healthy sleep measures increased their life expectancy by nearly 5 years, while women increased it by 2.5 years.

Try this for a longer life: The struggle with insomnia is real. Aim for seven to eight hours every night. If your sleep issue is that you have trouble falling asleep, try sleep hygiene tactics like reducing caffeine in the afternoon and evening, adding exercise to your day and dimming lights at night.

If you struggle to stay asleep, you should do those things too. But you should also get out of bed when you wake up and go do a quiet activity in another room until you feel drowsy again.

Recommended reading: Take the 7-Day Sleep Challenge

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4. Drink Less Alcohol

Even if you’ve been hearing the health praises for red wine for years, alcohol may prove harmful for your longevity. And overdoing it is much worse. Studies have found that imbibing more than one drink a day for women and two for men raises the risk of deadly health problems such as heart disease, liver disease and cancer.

But Dr. Ferrucci says that recent research has called those findings into question. New studies have shown that even a small amount of alcohol consumption is associated with negative health effects.

Try this for a longer life: To play it safe, try to limit your alcohol consumption to a celebratory glass of wine on special occasions. And if you like the nightly ritual of nursing a drink, consider experimenting with non-alcoholic cocktails served in your favorite wine, martini or highball glass. A warm mug of herbal tea is another great way to wind down your day.

5. Be Social

Staying connected to other people can help you live to be 100 — and make you feel happier while you’re at it. The more social connections people have through their lifetime, the healthier they score on risk factors like high blood pressure, being overweight and systemic inflammation.

One review of the research found that being socially connected increased the odds of survival by 50%. Isolation, on the other hand, has been linked to an increased risk of a range of chronic health problems, cognitive decline and a shorter lifespan.

Try this for a longer life: If you live alone, try to reach out to one person by text, phone or a Zoom or FaceTime call every day. Or make a pact with a neighbor that you’ll reach out to one another daily to check in on one another.

It’s also a wise move to participate in activities that include other people, like attending SilverSneakers classes, volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about or taking on a hobby that you can do with others.

6. Keep Learning

In our youngest years, learning was an activity that we did almost every day. That shouldn’t change in our golden ones. Research shows that lifelong learning stimulates healthy aging, increasing the years that you are active. That means you can get the exercise and healthy nutrients you need to keep on ticking.

It also helps your quality of life right now. Learning a new skill, like a foreign language, a new craft, or even pickleball, creates new neural pathways in your brain. Research has also found that maintaining a lifestyle that is intellectually stimulating can help preserve your cognitive skills and reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Try this for a longer life: Learning doesn’t have to mean taking a formal class, but that’s a great idea if you’re up for it. If not, watch YouTube videos on topics of interest, give language apps a try, or check in with your local library or community center to find out if they have free classes and lectures nearby.

See our sources:
Prevalence of centenarians: Pew Research
Betty White, super-ager: The Washington Post
Richard Morgan study: Journal of Applied Physiology
SuperAging Research Program: Northwestern University Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease
Exercise and longevity: JAMA Internal Medicine
Mediterranean diet and longevity: PLoS Medicine
Sleep and older adults: Sleep FoundationSleep and longevity: Journal of the American College of Cardiology
Social connections and longevity: PLoS Medicine and American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
Learning and longevity: The Longevity Dividend

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