The brains of “Super-Agers” shrink much more slowly than the brains of their same-age peers, resulting in a greater resistance to typical memory loss and dementia, according to new research at Northwestern Medicine.
In fact, over the course of the 18-month study, normal agers lost volume in the cortex twice as fast as Super-Agers.
“Super-Agers” is a term referring to a rare group of people aged 80 and above whose memories are as sharp as those of healthy individuals decades younger.
Super-Ager research at Northwestern is flipping the traditional approach to Alzheimer’s research of focusing on brains that are underperforming to instead focusing on outperforming brains.
“Sometimes it’s useful to turn a complex problem on its head and look from a different vantage point,” said Dr. Emily Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“The Super-Aging program studies people at the opposite end of the spectrum: those with unexpectedly high memory performance for their age.”
The researchers already knew that Super-Agers’ brains tend to retain more brain volume and typically don’t show the same wear-and-tear as normal agers.
“For this study we explored whether Super-Agers’ brains were on a different trajectory of decline,” said Rogalski. “We found that Super-Agers are resistant to the normal rate of decline that we see in average elderly, and they’re managing to strike a balance between life span and health span, really living well and enjoying their later years of life.”
Prior research has also shown that Super-Agers have a thicker cortex than normal agers. By studying what makes Super-Agers unique, the researchers said they hope to uncover biological factors, such as the reduced cortical brain atrophy demonstrated here, that might contribute to the maintenance of memory ability in old age.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists measured the thickness of the cortex in 24 Super-Agers and 12 same-age, educationally and cognitive average peers (control group) to determine the approximate health of the brain over 18 months.
They found that the annual percent decline in thickness between the first and second visit for the Super-Agers was 1.06 compared to 2.24 for the control group.
“Increasing age is often accompanied by ‘typical’ cognitive decline or, in some cases, more severe cognitive decline called dementia,” said first author Amanda Cook, a clinical neuropsychology doctoral student in the laboratory of Rogalski and Sandra Weintraub, Ph.D. “Super-Agers suggest that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable.”
The findings are published in the journal JAMA.
Source: Northwestern University