Sometimes it not only just feels good to focus on the positive - it can be good science. Emily Rogalski, an assistant professor in cognitive neurology at Northwestern University Chicago, led a study about cognitively remarkable elders that researchers call SuperAgers. The focus of the study was to find out why some elders at 80 have brains as sharp as people decades younger.
In reference to the lifestyle similarities of people eligible for the study, Rogalsli said that, ''The SuperAgers really are a diverse group; not all were wealthy, some exercised five times a week, while others only ran if they were chased.” There were no significant educational differences between the SuperAgers and the control group.
While many study applicants thought that they had outstanding memories for their age, only 10 percent of those 80 and over 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.
Rogalsli said of the study, “By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory…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 combating Alzheimer’s disease.”
For the study, Rogalsli measured the thickness of the participant’s cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain where neurons (brain cells) reside. “We can’t actually count them, but the thickness of the outer cortex of the brain provides an indirect measure of the health of the brain,” Rogalsli said. “A thicker cortex, suggests a greater number of neurons.”
The researchers also looked at the area of the brain called the anterior cingulated, and that area was typically thicker in SuperAger brains than in the 50 to 65 year olds. Rogalski said that, “This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories.”
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 of approximately the same age as the SuperAgers. This was a very small study, so there’s still much to investigate.
According to the article, most of the SuperAgers planned on donating their brains to science for further research. Perhaps, if more researchers can study brains that have withstood the challenges of aging, they will uncover more clues to combat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain diseases that generally begin as our age depletes our body’s ability to fight.