"SuperAgers," the fortunate folks who remain mentally sharp well into their 80s, may have brains that age differently than those of their peers, a new imaging study suggests.
Northwestern University researchers determined that an area of the brain linked to memory was thicker in scans of living people dubbed "SuperAgers" — and in autopsies of deceased "SuperAgers" — when compared to the brains of “normally” aging seniors.
Most other studies of memory loss have focused on those who have developed cognitive problems. The Northwestern researchers are hoping that their findings on SuperAgers may lead to a better understanding of why many people's minds decline with age.
“Now we know that [this brain region] is thicker in SuperAgers than those even two or three decades younger,” said study co-author Changiz Geula, a research professor of neuroscience at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University.
“Something we are very interested in investigating is whether the basis for what we have seen is purely inheritance or can it be modified by experience," Guela said.
The researchers defined SuperAgers as anyone who is 80 or older and whose memory is as strong as the average 50- to 65-year-old — and who scores as well or better than peers on other cognition tests.
Lou Ann Schachner, 86, a SuperAger who participated in the study, doesn’t know what's kept her and her husband’s memories intact. But, she speculated that it might be related to their good health and that “we have a long and happy marriage.”
Similarly, Alma Alspach, 86, has no idea what's kept her brain young, though she said she is very active and social. “I’m interested in new things,” she said. “So I don’t just sit around and vegetate. I’m out more than I’m in. Mostly, I’m busy.”
The Schachners also have kept busy over the years. And Lou Ann says she swims regularly.
For the new study, researchers scanned the brains of 31 SuperAgers, 13 age-matched but cognitively average controls, and 18 middle-aged controls who were between 50 and 65 years old.
Geula and colleagues found that an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex was thicker in the SuperAgers than their age-matched peers and comparable to that of middle-aged volunteers. That sector has been associated with memory storage.
In a second part of the study, researchers compared autopsied brains of five SuperAgers to those from five average elderly subjects and five others who had mild cognitive impairment, or MCI.
The anterior cingulate cortex was thickest in the SuperAgers and thicker in the average elderly than in people with MCI.
Further, SuperAgers had the fewest cells containing tangles of tau protein — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — compared to the other two groups. And the average elderly had fewer tangles than those who had developed MCI.
That, Geula said, underscores the importance of tau in the deterioration of memory.
Alzheimer’s research has largely focused on the other protein, amyloid, that's been implicated in the disease. This new research might spur others to look more closely at tau when searching for possible therapies, Geula said, adding the presence of tangles might explain the shrinking of the anterior cingulate cortex.
“What this study is telling us is that protecting the brain from tangles is useful,” Geula said.
Brain experts call the new findings critical in explaining memory decline and memory maintenance in the later years of our lives. The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience
“I think this notion of super aging elderly is quite exciting,” said Dr. LianaApostolova, associate professor in residence of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “I’d like to see more research into this group who are not showing what is considered to be ‘normal’ aging declines. It’s fascinating. It makes you want to know what causes this resilience.”
The findings also might help direct new research, Apostolova said — including possible insights into which environmental factors help some people live longer and sharper.
And the study could lead scientists to determine "what genetic factors might be involved in their being able to remember as well as they did when they were young," Apostolova said.
Dr. Caterina Rosano said she expects there are far more SuperAgers than people assume.
“What I’d really like the public to understand is that you are not destined to decline as severely as you think,” said Rosano an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s a lot we know about factors that affect this specific portion of the brain.
"Physical activity is very, very important. And it’s not like you have to go to the gym and jump on the treadmill for hours," Rosano asid. "Just walking to church or gardening can be enough to make a difference.”