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Friday
Oct122012

Meet the "SuperAgers": Elderly People Whose Brains Don't Age

Over at the excellent British Psychological Society Digest, psychologist Christian Jarrett introduces us to a group of 12 elderly folks whose brains appear to be immune to the physical effects of aging.

This remarkable dozen (average age 84) was identified by a research team led by Theresa Harrison at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University who measured the SuperAgers' exceptional mental performance. Quoting from the article:

They outperformed 10 typical healthy older folk (average age 83) on a test that involved recalling lists of words, and they matched the performance of 14 healthy middle-aged volunteers (average age 58). The SuperAgers also matched the middle-aged on tests of naming things, attention and task switching, and identifying drawings by category.

The researchers used a structural brain scanner to examine the SuperAgers' brains, and were astounded to find that somehow their brains have resisted the typical erosion nearly all of us suffer over time.

Whereas the typical older participants had thinner cortices and smaller average brain volumes (244mm cubed average) than the middle-aged (306mm cubed), the SuperAgers' brain surfaces were just as thick as the middle-aged and their brain volumes (288mm cubed) not significantly different in statistical terms. Moreover, there was one brain region - the left anterior cingulate - that was actually thicker in the SuperAgers than in the middle-aged....across the groups, brain volume correlated with episodic memory performance.

The question is, why are the SuperAgers' brains able to thwart the advance of time, and are there behaviors that others can engage in to keep their brains young as well? None of this is clear, at least not yet.

The first round of this study didn't dig into lifestyle differences, and it's not clear what role genetics plays in the SuperAgers' super-brains either.  But you can be sure that this group will be the subject of several more studies attempting to answer those questions -- with particular focus on what the answers might reveal about defeating Alzheimer's disease. Quoting from the article:

"Identifying the underlying factors that promote this trajectory of unusually successful cognitive aging may lead to novel insights for preventing age-related cognitive impairments or strategies for evading the more severe changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease," the researchers said.

H/T BPS Research Digest


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