They're age 80 and older, yet they have the memory and brain power of people in their 50s. So what's their secret?
That's what researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine are trying to figure out.
A new study found that this elite group of elderly -- or SuperAgers, as researchers call them -- have brains that appear as young as people in the prime of middle-age. In fact, one brain region of this SuperAger group was even bigger and healthier than a person's in midlife.
Senior study author Emily Rogalski, assistant professor of cognitive neurology at Northwestern's Alzheimer's Disease Center, wanted to know what was different about the brains of people in their 80s who were super-sharp cognitively.
"Many scientists study what's wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer's patients by figuring out what goes right in the brains of SuperAgers," she said.
For the study, she screened participants in their 80s and older who tested at or above the norm for 50- to 65-year-olds on memory exams. Only 10 percent of those who considered themselves to have "outstanding memories," made the cut.
Eventually, 12 SuperAgers, plus a control group of 10 normally aging adults with an average age of 83, were chosen, as well as 14 middle-aged participants, average age 58.
There were no significant differences in education among the groups.
Looking at three-dimensional MRI scans, Rogalski was surprised by the remarkable appearance of the SuperAgers' cortex -- the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities.
While the cortex had begun to thin among normally aging people are in their 80s, this group had a thick, healthy cortex similar to adults 20 or 30 years younger.
Plus, in another brain region important for memory, called the anterior cingulate, the SuperAgers' was actually thicker than those age 50 to 65.
Rogalski said her ultimate goal is to unlock the secret behind why some people are protected against the deterioration of memory and diminished brain cells that typically accompanies aging. She hopes her discoveries can help protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer's disease.
The study results were published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
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