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Attention: Why do SuperAgers Maintain Memory and a Thick Cortex?

Are brain aging and cog­ni­tive decline ineluctable? Maybe not. Grow­ing research is help­ing iden­tify “Super­Agers” whose brains at 80+ appear as young as the brains of peo­ple in their 50s.

What the lat­est Super­Agers study found

In a recent paper, researchers defined Super­Agers as peo­ple over 80 whose mem­ory per­for­mance was at least as good as aver­age 50– to 65-year-old’s per­for­mance. 36 par­tic­i­pants with sim­i­lar edu­ca­tion lev­els were involved in the study: 12 Super­Agers who were 80+ and two con­trol groups, one with 10 “nor­mally aging” peo­ple of the same age and one with 14 middle-aged adults between 50 and 65.

MRI scans of the par­tic­i­pants’ brains were taken to mea­sure the thick­ness of their cere­bral cor­tex (the outer layer of the brain, aka the grey mat­ter). The Super­Agers’ cor­tex was thicker than the cor­tex of the nor­mal group of “nor­mal” 80+ peo­ple — whose brains already showed sig­nif­i­cant atro­phy com­pared to the 50– to 65-year-old healthy group. The Super­Agers’ cor­tex looked very much like the cor­tex of par­tic­i­pants ages 50 to 65.

Another result sur­prised the researchers: a region of left ante­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex was thicker in the Super­Agers than in both elderly and middle-aged controls.

What does it mean?

Loss of grey mat­ter or brain cells and con­nec­tions is a com­mon part of nor­mal aging. This study shows that, how­ever, such brain atro­phy is not ineluctable. A few older peo­ple seem to be pro­tected from the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of mem­ory and brain cells that accom­pa­nies aging. Although there may not be that many peo­ple who qual­ify as Super­Agers (only 10% of the peo­ple who thought they had great mem­ory actu­ally met the cri­te­ria for the study), these results are encour­ag­ing. Try­ing to under­stand what makes these Super Brains spe­cial may help in pre­vent­ing age-related cog­ni­tive impair­ments and per­haps even in fight­ing the more severe changes asso­ci­ated with dementia.

So why do these peo­ple have such a good mem­ory and such a young cor­tex? We do not know yet. But there is one impor­tant cue: the region of the Super­Agers’ brains which was health­ier than both their age-matched peers’ and younger con­trols’  is impor­tant for atten­tion. Super­Agers may thus have a greater atten­tional capac­ity, which could help boost their mem­ory and their life­long learn­ing capacity.

Another ques­tion left to be answered is: Are Super­Agers born like that or do they develop such resilient brains through­out their lifes­pan? A thicker cor­tex means more brain cells and con­nec­tions. This could be a given to start with. Or this could be acquired through repeated usage of brain func­tions, thanks to neuroplasticity.

Could chal­leng­ing our brains the right way may be enough to trans­form us into SuperAgers?

To be continued…

The study: Supe­rior Mem­ory and Higher Cor­ti­cal Vol­umes in Unusu­ally Suc­cess­ful Cog­ni­tive Aging (Jour­nal of the Inter­na­tional Neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal Society)

  • Abstract: It is “nor­mal” for old age to be asso­ci­ated with grad­ual decline in mem­ory and brain mass. How­ever, there are anec­do­tal reports of indi­vid­u­als who seem immune to age-related mem­ory impair­ment, but these indi­vid­u­als have not been stud­ied sys­tem­at­i­cally. This study sought to estab­lish that such cog­ni­tive Super­Agers exist and to deter­mine if they were also resis­tant to age-related loss of cor­ti­cal brain vol­ume. Super­Agers were defined as indi­vid­u­als over age 80 with episodic mem­ory per­for­mance at least as good as nor­ma­tive val­ues for 50– to 65-year-olds. Cor­ti­cal mor­phom­e­try of the Super­Agers was com­pared to two cog­ni­tively nor­mal cohorts: age-matched elderly and 50– to 65-year-olds. The Super­Agers’ cere­bral cor­tex was sig­nif­i­cantly thicker than their healthy age-matched peers and dis­played no atro­phy com­pared to the 50– to 65-year-old healthy group. Unex­pect­edly, a region of left ante­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex was sig­nif­i­cantly thicker in the Super­Agers than in both elderly and middle-aged con­trols. Our find­ings iden­tify cog­ni­tive and neu­roanatom­i­cal fea­tures of a cohort that appears to resist aver­age age-related changes of mem­ory capac­ity and cor­ti­cal vol­ume. A bet­ter under­stand­ing of the under­ly­ing fac­tors pro­mot­ing this poten­tial tra­jec­tory of unusu­ally suc­cess­ful aging may pro­vide insight for pre­vent­ing age-related cog­ni­tive impair­ments or the more severe changes asso­ci­ated with Alzheimer’s disease.

— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, PhD. Dr. Mich­e­lon was a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis were she con­ducted sev­eral projects related to visual pro­cess­ing and mem­ory. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ulty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, teaches Mem­ory Work­shops in the St Louis area and has recently pub­lished Max Your Mem­ory.

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