A Super-aging Study being led by neuroscientist Emily Rogalski at Chicago’s Northwestern University may give new insight into how some people in the 80’s and 90’s keep the same sharp memory as someone else several decades younger. The work is a turn on the disappointing hunt for new drugs to help or prevent a variety of dementia related diseases as humans age.

The study team has conducted a battery of tests on more than 1,000 people who were thought to qualify and about 5 percent passed. The key memory challenge was for the participants to listen to 15 unrelated words and then a half-hour later recall at least nine of them which is the norm for 50-year-olds. The average 80-year old recalls five super-agers remember them all. Super-agers tend to be extroverts and have strong social networks, otherwise they come from all walks of life. Some were college graduates, some weren’t. Some have very high IQ’s while others are average. Some participants had experienced enormous trauma. Some were fitness buffs while others smoked. Some enjoyed alcohol while others were teetotalers. The differences made it difficult for the researchers to find a common trait for brain health.

Parts of the brain do shrink as people age. But it is deep within the brain that the researchers found compelling evidence that super-agers brains are more resilient against the ravages of aging. It turns out that super-agers brains do not shrink nearly as fast. Autopsies performed on some of the first super-agers in the study to die, show their brains harbor a lot more of a special kind of nerve cell in a deep brain region. Brain scans also showed that a super-agers cortex, an outer brain layer critical to memory and other key functions, is much thicker than normal for the individual’s age. It looks more like the cortex of a healthy 50 or 60 year old person’s brain. That could be related to what they were born with, but the researchers also say another clue is that their cortex just doesn’t shrink as fast over 18 months average 80 year olds experienced more than twice the rate of loss compared to super-agers.

Researchers also discovered that deep in the brain of the super-agers the attention region is much larger. And inside, autopsies showed that region of the brain was packed with unusual large, spindly von Economo meurons special and little understood neurons thought to play a role in social processing and awareness. The super-agers had four to five times more of those types of neurons compared to the typical octogenarian and even more than the average young adult.

The super-agers are living long and living well. Rogalski wonders…are there modifiable things people can do today in everyday lives to do the same. The study is still looking for Super-ager clients who are in the 80’s and 90’s – who are very active intellectually or physically who can contribute to the study. Another study being conducted at the University of California, Irvine, is also studying the old people in their 90’s and above. Some of these participants have Alzheimer’s, some have maintained excellent memories and some are in between. About 40 percent of the participants who had died, showed no symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease at death although their brains showed full-fledged signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains. Interestingly, the researchers found varying amounts of amyloid and tau, hallmark proteins in people with Alzheimer’s, in the brains of some of these super=agers which makes the researchers wonder how these people deflect damage perhaps they have different pathways to brain health.

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