A Northwestern University researcher has identified an elite group of elderly people age 80 and older whose memories are as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger than them.
Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., who dubbed these seniors “SuperAgers,” said that on 3-D MRI scans, their brains appear as young as the brains of middle-aged people.
She noted that the SuperAgers’ cortex — the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities — was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of elderly 80 and older, whose showed significant thinning. Rather, the SuperAgers closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65.
“These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging,” said Rogalski, an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
By identifying older people who seem to be protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of their youthful brains so those secrets can be used 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 said. “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.”
Measuring the thickness of the cortex gives her a a sense of how many brain cells are left, Rogalski explained.
“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,” she said. “A thicker cortex suggests a greater number of neurons.”
The study also found that in SuperAgers, another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate, 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, she noted. 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, she said.
“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 Superagers’ brains and screened their memory and other cognitive abilities. The study included 10 normally aging people who were an average age of 83.1 and 14 middle-aged participants who were an average age of 57.9. All groups had similar educations, she noted.
Most of the SuperAgers plan to donate their brains to the study, she added.
“By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features,” Rogalski said.
The study was published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
Source: Northwestern University