Unlocking the Secrets of Superagers

Unlocking the Secrets of Superagers

By Heidi Reidel

Entering into old age is a daunting idea for many, often because of the fear that one might lose one’s cognitive functions and treasured memories. Over five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, according to alz.org, the website for the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are painful and frustrating for those affected by it, and yet there are those whose brains manage to escape the ravages of time. These lucky ones are called “superagers.”

Superagers are elderly people whose brains’ function as well as if not better than the brains of those still in their youth. The secret of their ability to “age successfully” is the subject of scrutiny, as the key to their success could provide the cure to Alzheimer’s and allow many elderly people to live more functional, independent lives.

Think Thick

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience performed brain scans on adults between the ages of 60 and 80 and adults between the ages of 18 and 32. The superagers in the study were defined as those who performed as well as if not better than their younger counterparts on the California Verbal Learning Test Long Delay Free Recall test. The study revealed that the brains of superagers were indistinguishable from those of young adults. The cerebral cortex of the superagers was thicker than their peers and the volume of their hippocampus was preserved. Superagers did not show the same patterns of brain atrophy as those who age regularly, particularly in the default mode network- which controls memory encoding, storage, and retrieval- and the salience network- associated with attention and executive processes involved in encoding and retrieval.

Unaffected by Alzheimer’s

In another study, presented by Changiz Geula of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, it was discovered that superagers can have the amyloid plaques related to Alzheimer’s in their brains and still remain unaffected by the symptoms of the disease. Geula and his colleagues examined the brains of eight superagers and discovered that three of them contained widespread plaques and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s. When the researchers examined the neurons of the superagers’ brains, however, they were well preserved compared to the brain of one who exhibits the typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

What is the Secret of Superagers?

The question now is: what is to be done with this information so others may harness the ability of superagers to preserve these parts of their brains? As yet, there is no medicine that can thicken the cerebral cortex or preserve neurons. A five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health is attempting to uncover the reason superagers age so successfully. Though genetics could certainly be the answer, neuropsychologist David Lowenstein has noticed a correlation between work, exercise, Mediterranean diet, cognitive stimulation, social connections, and socioeconomic status on brain health. A study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that it is not enough to practice mental and physical exercise, the exercise must be somewhat grueling. Superagers tend to push through the discomfort of physical and mental exertion. The tendency to avoid mental and physical discomfort causes brain tissue to thin from disuse.

Certainly many individuals who suffer from memory loss as they age have led healthy, active, stimulating lives, and genetics and socioeconomic status are more or less beyond a person’s control. Further study will potentially produce more satisfying answers. Though there are still few concrete conclusions to be drawn from superagers, deeper research will hopefully one day unlock the cure to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.