Super-Agers and Cheese

Aunt Carmelene Januzzi. Photo credit: Paula Januzzi.

I read my cousin Paula’s Facebook post about her mother, Aunt Carmelene, and  wistfully studied the photo.

Aunt Carm was my father’s sister-in-law. She had just turned 87. With cheeks rosy and full, she appeared to be thriving. Aunt Carm was still cooking full meals at home and engaging with the grandkids.

Good for her, I thought, and allowed my heart to sink.

Every day, I confronted the facts about super-agers like Aunt Carm, and reconciled that information with a mother who was aging superbly in her body, but not her mind.

Mom, too, just had a birthday. She turned 89. As a reflection on her life, I reread my blog post (Buon Compleanno Vincenzella) from her birthday two years ago. What had I learned in the intervening years, and what I had gotten wrong?

Plenty of both.

“She is becoming closer to the perfect state of being.”

I wrote those words with the knowledge and hope Mom’s time was of some quantifiable length filled with quality. I could feel a letting go of expectations, in particular mine. However, I also did not anticipate the up’s and down’s she had been through as of late. She was four for four in the infection battle, and still counting.

In various news reports, at doctor’s offices, in clinical or cultural settings, superagers are  defined as one who has been identified in studies as having exceptionally sharp memories in their 80s and 90s, and are lauded and applauded.

However, those of us with loved ones in care homes or at home but no longer super aging examine the worlds of those we love and say, “Yes, and…”

My aunt and mother grew up in the same hometown. Both were Italian. Both consumed the “Mediterranean Diet”. Both were active in their church, community, and chosen vocations. My mother walked plenty, rode her bike, and climbed enough stairs to outlive multiple Fitbits had they been invented.

The two women basically drank from the same well and breathed the same Lake Effect air. They would have grocery shopped in similar stores. Aunt Carm lost her husband about ten years ago. Mom lost Dad five years ago. Both had a fair number of children, four and five. Both baked cookies, the good ones. Both had plenty of grandchildren to keep them engaged. In general, their lives could be compared to one another.

However, we don’t have the tools to measure the impact of life’s interruptions on aging, of which my mother experienced an early loss of a birth father and her first born, and the subsequent tragic experiences of her own children. Aunt Carm also experienced this with her husband and children, but in each woman’s biological or emotional response, perhaps this was where their paths diverged.

A study from Massachussetts General found: In 17 “super-agers”, several parts of the brain’s memory machinery – including the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex and the hippocampus – appeared thicker and healthier than normal for people of their age.

Aging causes shrinkage in those regions of the brain. In super-agers, memory test scores correlated to brain size, i.e., the better score corresponded to the thicker brain. Perhaps thick-headed should be redefined, because none of those test subjects appeared to have an unintelligent life.

The doctors then asked, Can we create super-agers, or are we born with it?  From Forbes onlineThe researchers can’t yet tell if their positive attitudes are a result of having healthier than usual brains or if the attentive and positive attitudes are a cause of the healthier brains.

My cousin would answer her mother created a fulfilling life that has led to her longevity. I would answer, my mother was gifted with flawless skin, a petite frame, and quick wit and a service heart, but was she also born with a genetic formation that led her down this path? Can one’s emotional lifestyle be another factor? Two sides, nearly the same coin?

Can we live with the paradox that for some, our bodies outlive our minds? And for others, our minds outlive our bodies? Can we hold somewhere in the middle the fact that sometimes our minds and bodies outlive the medical news? Can I?

I am happy for Aunt Carm who is becoming or is already a super-ager. Scientists are identifying those individuals and studying their makeup, offering more possibilities to cure Alzheimer’s and dementia.

What most frightens me – and this is the truth for many caring for individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s – is becoming a super-ager without a super mind to go along with it.

If I am a super-ager, it’s because I walked the Oregon Coast every day. Or because I wrote blogs about city strolls into my 90’s. Or because I remained curious about the people who surrounded me and the events that shaped me.

If I am not a super-ager, it’s OK. My kids and husband know I’m not usually that super excited about anything related to aging – other than wine and cheese.

Note: The author has yet to determine the proper spelling of super-ager. Perhaps hope some super-ager can help figure that out.




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