Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Introducing the SuperAgers - the elderly people whose brains have stayed young

They say the slow inevitable decline sets in during our early twenties. Like a rocket reaching its apogee, once the brain is fully developed there is the briefest lull, and then it's all downhill, the last neural areas to develop being the first to start unravelling. By the time of old age, so certain are the impairments in mental processing that psychological tests are age-adjusted - "You're slow Bob, but not for your age. For an 80-year-old you're doing just fine."

But wait. A team led by Theresa Harrison at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University say they've identified a group of elderly individuals whose brains appear relatively immune to the physical effects of ageing.

Harrison and her colleagues identified these 12 "SuperAgers" (average age 84) by their exceptional mental performance. 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.

Using a structural brain scanner, the researchers found that the SuperAgers had brains that seemed to have resisted the erosive influence of 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.

"These findings are remarkable," the researchers said, "given the numerous reports that grey matter loss is a common, if not universal, part of normal ageing."

Across the groups, brain volume correlated with episodic memory performance. Although cingulate thickness did not, Harrison's team still think it's interesting that this region was thicker in the SuperAgers. Relevant here is previous research showing that early protein accumulations in the cingulate region have been detected in Alzheimer patients.

This new study provides a tantalising demonstration that continuing neural decline into old age is not inevitable. Crucial now is to find out why the SuperAgers are so well preserved. It's not known, for example, if they had larger brains and greater cognitive reserves to begin with, or if their brains have simply aged more slowly than usual. Perhaps their lifestyles will hold clues, although the obvious role of education appears not to be relevant with this group. Their time in education was no longer than the other participants and in fact only four of them went to university.

"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.


Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam, and Emily Rogalski1 (2012). Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society DOI: 10.1017/S1355617712000847

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Benjik said...

Those of us who know how to enjoy being four years old at eighty are careful not to get dragged down by life. We know how to protect our hearts, how to avoid behavior that makes a 30 year old look 60, and how to love ourselves and the things around us. Maintain your inner child, take time to play, and never stop learning at a rapid rate.

Mary said...

Introducing the SuperAgers was very interesting to me. The part that I found most interesting thing is that of the ones they studied they showed their left anterior cingulate cortex was thicker in the older ones than the younger ones. This particular part of the brain helps appears in a wide variety of autonomic functions. Such functions are emotion formation and processing, learning and memory.
I too question what is it about their make-up biologically in their brains that kept that part of the brain from dying. Why is the younger generations part of the brain dying quicker than someone twice their age? These are the questions that puzzled me. I am sure maybe diet, genetics and all of that kind of information plays a role but their are a lot of older people who seem to be able to work circles around the younger people. I would also assume a part of that would be the era they were brought up in. They did not have all the luxuries we have that make it where we hardly have to do anything physical anymore. That is just my thoughts on this article.

Self Help Reviews said...

Similarly, I caught Richard Dawkins documentary last night on More4. He interviewed a family who's life expectancy averaged over 100. One would think that this longer life expectancy was evolving, but quite the opposite is occurring. As reproductive age only occurs between certain ages, longer life span does not play a part. In fact, those will longer life expectancy are associated with fewer children, by quite a dramatic margin.

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