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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Brains of “Super Agers” Look Decades Younger

A key attention region may underlie some octogenarians' unusual abilities



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As people age, their brain tends to shrink and their memory gets worse. But what if this deterioration weren't inevitable? New research suggests not only that some elderly individuals retain sharp memory skills but also that their brain remains unscathed. Although scientists do not yet know what is responsible for this special resiliency—or how to help people acquire it—a brain region involved in attention may offer an important clue.

Researchers at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine identified 12 individuals older than 80 years—whom they called “Super Agers”—who performed as well on memory tests as a group of 14 volunteers between the ages of 50 and 65. The scientists performed structural MRI scans on both groups as well as a third group of normal subjects over the age of 80. Although the researchers expected the Super Agers' brains to show some evidence of age-related decline, their average brain thickness matched that of the younger group, and both groups' brains were significantly thicker than those of normal octogenarians.

One brain region important for attention, called the anterior cingulate, was actually thicker in the Super Agers than in their younger counterparts. This finding suggests that “Super Agers may have a particularly keen sense of attention that helps to support their memory,” explains lead author Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, who published the work in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. In particular, compared with normal octogenarians, Super Agers have four times as many von Economo neurons, which are large cingulate brain cells implicated in higher-order thinking. In ongoing research, Rogalski hopes to tease out the genetic and lifestyle factors significant for preventing age-related decline, noting that according to her preliminary analyses, “there may be more than one way to becoming a Super Ager.”

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