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SuperAger Doesn't Follow a Daily Routine, Neuroscientist Approves

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  • 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 breaking a routine can be unhealthy for your brain.

Scientists are studying the behavior of “SuperAgers” – defined by Northwestern as a rare group of elderly people who have the brains of people 30 years younger than they are – to find out how humans can keep their memories sharp as they age.

Eating plants and whole foods, exercising regularly, and maintaining social ties are research-proven ways to stay healthy 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 that some SuperAgers are “super exercisers,” but others become more active later in life. The same goes for diet, Rogalski said some SuperAgers are health freaks, while others admit to eating too many TV dinners growing up.

See Carol Siegler, a Chicago-area-based SuperAger who applied to be on Danger! Double. Siegler, one of those rare and exceptional seniors, told Insider that he doesn’t have a strict exercise routine or a superfood-only diet.

Siegler said he wakes up at a “normal time” and eats an “average breakfast” of meals like oatmeal, omelettes and french toast. The 85-year-old said she pours coffee into her coffee first thing in the morning and plays Wordle or the New York Times Spelling Bee while she waits for it to boil — but only if she “feels like it.”

SuperAger said it has started incorporating more plant-based meals recently, but it wouldn’t say it follows any kind of diet. She tries not to snack or store junk food at home, but doesn’t restrict herself beyond that.

As for exercise, Siegler said she started exercising regularly more than a year ago, prompted by the death of her husband. Siegler attends yoga classes twice a week and uses her hospital gym for other workouts on other days. She played volleyball in college, but for much of her adult life she watched from the sidelines as her husband and children exercised.

“I don’t have a specific routine, I just do the average things people do,” she told Insider. “I go to bed, I don’t take a lot of medicine, I don’t have a special diet.”

Keeping your mind sharp involves not falling into a rut.

Siegler’s lack of a rigid exercise routine or eating plan might seem counterintuitive, but Rogalski said the constant change might be one reason why she’s remained so sharp.

“Our brains really like change,” Rogalski said. “Switching things up and having some variation helps keep us on our toes.”

The human brain has evolved to be attuned to unusual or challenging aspects of our environment, Rogalski said. The trend dates back to our earliest human days, when people needed to listen for a rustle in the woods that might signal a snake or bear.

“Realizing these differences helps protect us,” added Rogalski.

A common pattern among SuperAgers is a tendency to challenge themselves by reading new books, playing puzzles and mind games, or learning new things, Rogalski and other researchers who study these people have found.

Siegler keeps his mind sharp through puzzles and reading. She bought three large crossword puzzle books and won an online contest for her age group. She also plays Wordle and Sudoku on her iPad and enjoys watching David Attenborough documentaries and following the daily news and stock market.

“I like to learn things,” she said. “I was always the little boy who read everything there was.”

But then again, Siegler doesn’t have many rules about his mental diet. She keeps a jigsaw puzzle book by her bed and sometimes plays it at night, other times not.

Rather than following a strict plan every day, Siegler encourages others who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle to frequently change their routine. For example, instead of taking scheduled walks, Siegler sneaks in extra steps by parking far from the grocery store or library, or carrying small loads of laundry to and from the machine.

“You get into a rut, and if you stay too long, it becomes a rut, then a trench, then a tunnel,” Siegler said. “Just keep turning your head and looking around.”

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