Inside the Brains of SuperAgers

Is it possible for an 80-year-old brain to look like a 50-year-old brain? And if so, how?

One researcher at Northwestern University was determined to find out.

Neuroscientist Emily Rogalski from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine began recruiting volunteers age 80 and up from the Chicago area to test their memories. Why do some elderly individuals have such strong memories? What do their brains look like?

Of those who came in to have their memories tested, only about 1 in 10 had exceptional memories as good or better than the memories of people in their 50s and 60s. This small group Rogalski calls “superagers.”

MRI scans of the SuperAgers found two big differences from the brains of average 80-year-olds.

The cortex (the area of the brain responsible for thinking and memory) of SuperAgers experienced no significant shrinkage as compared to the brains of 50 and 60-year-olds. Additionally, SuperAgers had anterior cingulates thicker than in that of the 50-year-old brain. The anterior cingulate is the small brain region important for attention and memory.

Tests found SuperAgers also had fewer risk genes for Alzheimer’s than typical 80-year-olds.

The study, with 12 participants, is too small at this point to be conclusive; Rogalski has consequently recruited 30 more SuperAgers to participate in the study, and she’s just started to analyze their brain scans.

Engage As You Age is eager to follow the study as it grows and develops. What are the primary reasons why SuperAgers’ brains look different? Genes? Environment? Lifestyle? Could socialization and social stimulation have something to do with it? Does aging in place versus in an aging facility have something to do with it?

What do you think? Do you know any seniors in the San Francisco Bay Area with an excellent memory?

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