As you Age, Good Friends might Prove to be your Best Brain Booster

Edith Smith is a proud, 103-year old woman who will talk about her friends.

Johnetta, 101 years old, is her best friend and has Alzheimer's. Smith explained, "I call her every single day and just say, 'Hi, How are you doing?" She doesn't know, but she does tell me hi, which I love to tease."

Smith, at 93, met Katie during her long tenure as an educator with Chicago Public Schools. We have good conversations every day. I am privileged to have her as a friend. She drives, lives alone and tells me all about it.

Smith also visits Rhea (90), who she regularly visits at the retirement center. Mary, 95-years old, isn't able to leave her house any more so Smith makes her a special basket of jelly and small things and then sends it back by cab. And Smith also recognizes fellow seniors in Smith's Chicago senior community with a card, as well as a treat, on each birthday.

Smith replied, "I am a very friendly person," when Smith was asked how she describes herself.

This may explain why the lively centenarian is so sharp, according to a Northwestern University study. It also suggests that there's a link between brain health (and positive relationships) and brain health.

These experts have been studying "SuperAgers", people over 80 who are better at remembering than those 20-30 years older for nine years. Each year, they fill out questionnaires about their lives, receive neuropsychological tests and brain scans, as well as a neurological exam.

Emily Rogalski (associate professor, Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, Northwestern's Feinberg College of Medicine) said, "When we began this project, it was not really certain we could locate these individuals."

You'd be surprised at the number of 31-year-olds and women from Illinois who have exceptional memories and are now participating in the project. Rogalski stated that part of the project is to "characterize them" - who are they and what do they look like.

The Northwestern Group's previous research revealed intriguing clues. It showed that SuperAgers had distinct brain characteristics, including thicker cortexes and resistance to age-related loss. They also have a greater left anterior cingulate, which is an important part of the brain for attention and working memories.

Rogalski pointed out that the brain alone isn't enough to account for SuperAgers unusually sharp mental abilities. Rogalski said, "It is likely that there are several critical factors that are involved."

For their new study, the researchers asked 31 SuperAgers and 19 cognitively "normal" older adults to fill out a 42-item questionnaire about their psychological well-being. The SuperAgers stood out in one area: the degree to which they reported having satisfying, warm, trusting relationships. They were very similar to their peers in other areas such as having purpose and retaining autonomy.

Rogalski stated that this group is very dependent on social relationships and could play an important role in maintaining their cognitive abilities.

This finding supports other studies that have linked positive relationships with a lower risk of dementia, cognitive impairment, and mild cognitive impairment. However, research has not examined whether SuperAgers can sustain such relationships and if their experience might offer any lessons.

Smith, one the SuperAgers has many ideas about this. Her retirement community has nine members who greet new residents, and help them to feel at home. "I'm always happy to smile for anyone," she stated. "I like to know someone's name right away, so if I meet them, it's always 'Good morning'.

"Majority of old people just tell you the exact same story over again," she stated. And sometimes they only complain, and then don't listen to what you have. That's terrible. It is important to hear what others have to say.

Brian Fenwick (administrator of Bethany Retirement Community), where Smith lives, describes Smith as a "leader" in his community and says that Smith is "very involved." She is a constant reminder to us. She's alert and aware of what is happening.

Smith was a caretaker for her husband 15 years ago. He died in 2013. Smith recalls, "All the while he was sick, I was still doing some things for him." You can't drop everything and expect that you will be able pick it all up. It's impossible to drop all your friends and expect them not to be there for you when you need them."

According to her, what she does each day is to "show people that I care."

William "Bill" Gurolnick, 86, another SuperAger in the study, realized the value of becoming more demonstrative after he retired from a sales and marketing position in 1999. He explained that men are not usually open to sharing their emotions and that he was more of a "keep-it-inside" type person. But I have learned that opening up to others is something I can do.

Gurolnick formed Men Enjoying Leisure in Chicago with a handful of men who were tired of the corporate world. The group now has more than 150 members. Each month the group meets twice a month. One hour is spent discussing personal topics, like divorce and illness or how to help children find work.

Gurolnick stated that "We discover people aren’t alone in their problems,” and added that about a dozen of them have been good friends.

Buddy Kalish, an 80-year-old member of the Northbrook, Ill. group, stated that Bill "is the glue that keeps everyone together." He is very kind and caring. The first to write a note of thanks, or to notify the family that there has been a loss, was Bill Kalish.

Gurolnick can also build connections through activities. He rides 20-30 miles on Mondays with more than 12 older men, many of whom are part of his men's club. Lunch follows. He walks with a group and then has coffee. For two hours of water volleyball at the Wenger Jewish Community Center, Northbrook on Wednesdays, he attends. The JCC hosts pickleball and racquet sports at their facility on Thursdays.

Gurolnick responded that these conversations give him a feeling of "still being alive." You get the feeling of being not alone.

Evelyn Finegan would have been alone without Grayce her best friend and neighbor, who she has known since highschool. Finegan, another SuperAger, is very hard of hearing, has macular disease in both eyes and is otherwise extremely healthy.

Finegan says, "It's important to keep in touch with your friends-to dial the number and make calls." Finegan talks with Grayce nearly every day and also chats with four high school classmates on a daily basis.

Finegan spends her time at church and volunteering at Oak Park's resale shops in Oak Park. Finegan also enjoys socializing with other people within her building and attending Welsh women clubs. She sees her daughter and her son-inlaw, as well as her grandchildren who are in Oregon.

June Witzl (91), her neighbor upstairs, said that it was so pleasant to spend time with Evelyn. June often drove Finegan to doctor's appointments. She is very caring and generous. She tells you her beliefs so that you feel you can trust her and not wonder what her thoughts are.