This surprising generation shows remarkable youth, even in old age. ‘SuperAgers,’ as they are called, are men and women over 80 years old that show cognitive function mirroring — or exceeding — that of an individual in their 50s or 60s.
Recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Emily Rogalski of Northwestern University began to uncover the phenomenon behind these SuperAgers, specifically seeking out the traits they have that set them apart in their age group, and even in other groups.
It took several years and many screenings to find true SuperAgers. Rogalski states that of over 1,000 people who claimed they had a great memory, only five percent qualified as SuperAgers.
SuperAgers are defined as octogenarians who have better memory performance than people between the ages of 50 and 60. They have larger brains than the majority of people their age and younger.
In fact, the average person’s brain is aging at a rate almost two times faster than the SuperAger. The MRIs of the SuperAgers showed a remarkable decrease in the atrophying process that occurs with common brain aging.
The brain of the SuperAger is resistant to the natural aging process, retaining its thickness even as time goes on.
However, the reasoning for this phenomenon is yet unknown. While these SuperAgers seem to hold the key to anti-aging, there is no discernible cause at play. Rogalski hopes to continue her research into this subject, examing the composition of the cortex and how their neurons function in comparison to the average person. Additionally, she hopes to identify activities that the SuperAgers participate in that might cause their brains to form this protective ability.
Memory loss begins to occur even in a person’s 20s and 30s as a natural sign of aging. Harvard University also conducted research on the subject, following a similar protocol as Rogalski and her team, using an MRI to examine the cortex.
“We desperately need to understand how some older adults are able to function very well into their seventh, eighth, and ninth decades. This could provide important clues about how to prevent the decline in memory and thinking that accompanies aging in most of us,” said Bradford Dickerson, Harvard Medical School associate professor of Neurology. Dickerson is also the Director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit in the MGH Department of Neurology.
Their findings support Rogalski’s study. SuperAgers are able to maintain thickness of the cortex, although the reasoning for being able to do so is not quite known. The cortex is the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking, and, as it atrophies with age, those abilities become less sharp.
To discover the habits or genetic traits that make SuperAgers what they are would open the door to new supplements or lifestyle habits that can create an entire generation of SuperAgers. It could also lead to developments in treating age-related memory loss or dementia. Further studies will be done to discover, and hopefully replicate, the phenomenon occurring here.