Ask Edith Smith, 103, about her friends, and she’ll give you an earful.
There’s Johnetta, 101, whom she’s known for 70 years and who has Alzheimer’s disease. “I call her every day and just say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ She never knows, but she says hi back, and I tease her,” Smith said.
There’s Katie, 93, whom Smith met while at Chicago Public Schools. “Every day we have a good conversation. She’s still driving and lives in her own house, and she tells me what’s going on.”
Then there’s Rhea, 90, whom Smith visits regularly at a retirement facility. And Mary, 95, who doesn’t leave her house anymore, “so I fix her a basket about once a month of jelly and little things I make and send it over by cab.” And fellow residents at Smith’s Chicago senior community, whom she recognizes with a card and a treat on their birthdays.
“I’m a very friendly person,” Smith said.
That may be one reason this centenarian has an extraordinary memory for someone her age, suggests a recent study by researchers at Northwestern University highlighting a notable link between brain health and positive relationships.
For nine years, these experts have been examining “SuperAgers” — men and women over age 80 whose memories are as good or better than people 20 to 30 years younger. Every couple of years, the members fill out surveys about their lives and get a battery of neuropsychological tests, brain scans and a neurological examination, among other evaluations.
“When we started this project, we weren’t really sure we could find these individuals,” said Emily Rogalski, an associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
But find them they did: 31 older men and women with exceptional memories are participating in the project. “Part of the goal is to characterize them — who are they, what are they like,” Rogalski said.
Previous research provided tantalizing clues, showing that SuperAgers have distinctive brain features: thicker cortexes, a resistance to age-related atrophy and a larger left anterior cingulate (a part of the brain important to attention and working memory).
But brain structure alone doesn’t fully account for SuperAgers’ unusual mental acuity, Rogalski suggested. “It’s likely there are a number of critical factors that are implicated,” she said.
For their new study, the researchers asked the 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. (In other areas, such as having a purpose in life or retaining autonomy, they were much like their “normal” peers.)
“Social relationships are really important” to this group and might play a significant role in preserving their cognition, Rogalski said.
That finding is consistent with other research linking positive relationships to a reduced risk of cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Still, researchers haven’t examined how SuperAgers sustain these relationships and whether their experiences might include lessons for others.
Smith, one of the SuperAgers, has plenty of thoughts about that. At her retirement community, she’s one of nine people who welcome new residents and try to help make them feel at home. “I have a smile for everybody,” she said. “I try to learn someone’s name as soon as they come in, and if I see them it’s ‘Good morning, how do you do?’”
Brian Fenwick, administrator of the Bethany Retirement Community where Smith lives, calls Smith a “leader in the community” and explains that “she’s very involved. She keeps us in line. She notices what’s going on and isn’t afraid to speak out.”
What she does every day, Smith said, is “show people I care.”