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Celebrating What’s Right With Aging: Inside the Minds of Super Agers

Some people in their 80s and 90s show shockingly little decline in their brainpower. Scientists are beginning to understand what makes them different and how the rest of us might benefit

Celebrating What's Right With Aging: Inside the Minds of Super Agers

Mark Ross Studio / Getty

You can find Vernon Smith hard at work at his computer by 7:30 each morning, cranking out 10 solid hours of writing and researching every day.

His job is incredibly demanding — he is currently on the faculty of both the business and law schools at Chapman University. But the hard work pays off: Smith’s research is consistently ranked as the most-cited work produced at the school — a testament to his ongoing academic influence and success. He manages his job and research work while also coauthoring books and traveling around the country to deliver lectures.

It’s a remarkable level of productivity, made all the more remarkable by one simple fact: Vernon Smith is 96 years old.

Smith, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences at the tender age of 75, says he feels the same passion as he did then, and even as he did when he embarked on his career more than seven decades ago.


The puzzle of the super ager

Researchers are attempting to answer these questions by studying people like Smith, who is one of 1,600 participants in the University of California, Irvine’s 90+ Study, a research project examining both successful aging and dementia in people age 90 and older. Scientists and gerontologists are recruiting individuals who demonstrate remarkable memory and evaluating their physical health and their lifestyles. The researchers observe the brains of their subjects using MRIs and scans, test for biological markers and conduct postmortem studies on those who have donated their brains after death (many study participants do) — all in an effort to understand this small but extraordinary group of men and women who, like Smith, are now categorized as “super agers.”

“Super ager” is used to describe someone over 80 with an exceptional memory — one at least as good as the memories of people who are 20 to 30 years younger.

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