Secret Brains of ‘SuperAger’
80-Year-Olds with Brains That Look and Act As If They Were 30
From ScienceDaily (Aug. 16, 2012)
Medicine has looked at what is wrong with us for over a hundred years. Yet with the advent of positive psychology, researchers are beginning to ask what is right with us. Northwestern researcher Emily Rogalski asked what goes right in the brains of the elderly who have terrific memories. And, do such people — known as cognitive SuperAgers — even exist?
Rogalski’s latest study has identified for the first time ever a resilient group of people over the age of 80 whose memory and attention are as functional as people 30 years younger.
In particular, the vitality of the SuperAgers’ cortex was impressive. The cortex is the outer layer of the brain and is critical for memory, attention and other executive functions. SuperAgers’ cortex was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of folks aged 80 and older (whose showed significant thinning) and more closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65, considered the middle-aged group of the study.
“These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging,” said Rogalski, the principal investigator of the study and an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University School of Medicine.
By identifying older people who seem to be uniquely protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of their youthful brains. Those discoveries may be applied to protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer’s disease.
“By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory,” Rogalski stated. “Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of SuperAgers. What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combatting Alzheimer’s disease.”
In another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate of SuperAger participants’ was actually thicker than in the 50 to 65 year olds.
“This is pretty incredible,” Rogalski said. “This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories.”
Only 10 percent of the people who “thought they had outstanding memories” met the criteria for the study. To be defined as a SuperAger, the participants needed to score at or above the norm of the 50 to 65 year olds on memory screenings.
“These are a special group of people,” Rogalski said. They aren’t growing on trees.”
For the study, Rogalski viewed the MRI scans of 12 Chicago-area Superager participants’ brains and screened their memory and other cognitive abilities. The study included 10 normally aging elderly participants who were an average age of 83.1 and 14 middle-aged participants who were an average age of 57.9. There were not significant differences in education among the groups.
Most of the SuperAger participants plan to donate their brains to the study. “By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features,” Rogalski said.
Set your goal to be a SuperAger. Act AS IF your memory and attention are growing stronger with age.
To life, love and laughter,
John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Positive Psychology Coach
Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought
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1. Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam and Emily Rogalski. Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2012 DOI: 10.1017/S1355617712000847
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Northwestern University (2012, August 16). Secrets of ‘SuperAger’ brains: Elderly super-agers have brains that look and act decades younger than their age. ScienceDaily.
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