Health Team

'Everyone has their own secret sauce': Doctors, seniors explain how to keep brain and body sharp into old age

People are aging better with the help of a Durham senior center. See inside the center to see what they're doing to help people as they age.

Posted Updated

Sarah Krueger
, WRAL Durham reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — The on-site gym at the Durham Center for Senior Life is where to find Pernell Canaday five days a week.

“Two hours, maybe an hour and a half,” Canaday said. “[It] just depends on how fast I want to ride.”

The 88-year-old retired law enforcement officer is physically fit and mentally sharp. He said his time with the Durham Police Department instilled discipline.

“This helps your old bones,” Canaday said of his exercise.

Canaday said he used to get up at 3 a.m. to walk five miles.

Doctors have described Canaday as a “super ager,” which is a term used by researchers at Northwestern University. The term is defined as adults 80 and older “who have the memory abilities of at least the level of individuals 20-30 years younger.”

Canaday explained the secret to his health.

“You [have to] eat right [and] treat people right,” he said. “Don’t go with the drugs.”

Research from the Northwestern’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease found brains tend to shrink as people age. However, "super agers" hold on to more of their brain mass, for longer. The studies can help better understand some of the factors that help brains stay strong.

Scientists with the National Institute on Aging found advanced education and jobs that are mentally challenging are good for brains' longevity.

“This is really an important topic as our society is aging,” said Dr. John Batsis, a geriatric physician and associate professor with the UNC School of Medicine.

Batsis, who cares for adults age 65 and older, has noticed a few things among his “super ager” patients. They’ve had a focus on exercise, diet and socializing throughout their lives.

“Everyone has their own secret sauce, so to speak, of why they’ve aged so successfully,” he said.

Batsis’ observations support findings from Northwestern researchers that "super agers" tend to have more friends and family.

“It’s really being able to have family support systems, friends, they’re able to go out and interact,” Batsis said.

Canaday said he thinks having a hobby is important too. He has antique cars.

Louise Gooche, 80, has the socializing aspect down. The cancer survivor founded a cheerleading squad for seniors. She said the group has performed since 2004.

Gooche said her secret to aging well is her attitude.

“Find something positive to think about every day and stay focused on that,” Gooche said.

Fellow cancer survivor Earnestine Goods, 80, echoed Gooche’s advice.

“It made me realize that life could be cut off at any moment,” Goods said. “And, you should try to make the best of it each day.”

Goods, who had breast cancer 23 years ago, said aging was an important topic for society. She has lots of family members living in their 90s and 100s.

“My father had an aunt that lived to be 119,” Goods said.

Only about 10% of people 80 years and older plus will get that "super ager" designation, according to Batsis. The reason scientists are studying them is to see how to increase the figure.

Even if someone is years away from being eligible for “super ager” status, doctors say the right habits will help you get there.


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