Study on Super Agers Trying to Shed Light on Healthy Elderly Brains

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Have you ever complimented someone by saying they look young for their age? Have you ever received that compliment? Image if that compliment was given to the way your brain looks, especially if you’re in your 80s or 90s.

    It turns out that a small group of people are receiving that compliment, thanks to a longitudinal study out of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center. In this study, researchers are looking at people they have identified as “super agers” who have maintained a youthful mental capacity into their 80s and 90s. The goal is to learn from these youthful elders about how to fight Alzheimer’s.

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    The researchers have screened more than 400 people using a battery of mental tests. However, only 35 have been eligible. These people have agreed to undergoing imaging scans and other medical tests periodically during the study. These study participants also have agreed to donate their brains to the center after they die. This study began five years ago and is continuing to seek new participants.

    Already, researchers are combing the brain scans to learn about the differences in brains between super agers and their counterparts who are less mentally sharp. “What we found was that the super agers’ brains looked more like the individuals who are 50 to 65 years old than the 80 year olds that had normal memory,” said Dr. Emily Rogalski, a cognitive neurologist who is part of the research team, told WBEZ. For instance, researchers have found that super agers’ brain cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain and is responsible for memory, is thicker than other people who are in the same age range. Researchers believe that thinner cortex indicate loss of brain cells. Furthermore, people in their 80s and 80s who have typical memory declines due to aging had a thinner cortex.

    The MRI scans in the Northwestern study also indicate that the super agers have a bigger anterior cingulate, which is a small region of the brain that is linked to attention. In fact, the researchers found that this portion of the brain is actually bigger than those in many middle-age people. The super agers also are more energetic than most people their age. They also are positive and inquisitive.

    At this point, though researchers haven’t been able to make any concrete findings since the subjects vary as far as education levels, diet and lifestyle. For instance, some of the super agers have smoked for decades while others have never picked up a cigarette. Some retired from work, while others are actively working and still others never have held a professional job.

    Another possibility is that the super agers’ brains may be structurally better in order to last longer functionally. Also, researchers are hypothesizing that genetics also plays a part in the healthiness of the super agers’ brains.

    I think this study is one to watch closely to see what researchers learn about the super agers. The Northwestern study also causes me to think of the Blue Zones research by Dan Buettner and National Geographic. While he didn’t look at super agers (and didn’t do the brain scans), he did determine where large groups of healthy elders lived to reach 100 and then tried to tease out what might be behind it. They found nine characteristics: move naturally; have a purpose; reduce stress; stopping eating when you’re 80 percent full; eat more plants; drink alcohol moderately and regularly; belong to a faith-based community; put families first; and live in a community that supports healthy behaviors.

  • So until the Northwestern researchers’ findings are available, I’d encourage you to delve more deeply into the Blue Zones research and start adopting their recommendations into your own life.

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Buettner, D. (nd). Power 9. Blue

    Ford, Q. (2012). Northwestern University study looks to “super agers” for answers on dementia.

    Goodwin, J. (2012). Sharp as a tack at 90: Here’s why. U.S. News & World Report.

    Smith, M. (2012). Researchers tracking some particularly sharp seniors. Chicago Tribune.

    Tanner, L. (2013). Study seeks super agers’ secrets to brain health. Yahoo! News.

Published On: August 30, 2013