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Saturday, August 25, 2012

The super brains of SuperAgers

Okay, this title is a bit misleading. The brains in question are fairly normal for people in their fifties. The only thing super about them is that they happen to reside in the heads of people who are over 80. Emily Rogalski and her colleagues from Northwestern University studied what gives this subset of people such a cognitive edge as they age.

Twelve people dubbed ‘SuperAgers’ were identified as people who, although in their eighties, performed on episodic memory tests like people in their fifties. People who really were in their fifties and sixties served as middle-aged controls. None of the subjects in the study had any evidence of neurologic or psychiatric disease.

Not only did the SuperAgers perform as well or better than middle-aged controls on recall tests, but they also lacked the cortical thinning evident in their age-mates. In fact, one area of the brain (the left anterior cingulate) was actually thicker in eighty-year-old SuperAgers than in middle-aged people. This is contrary to the expectation that our brains atrophy as we age. For a select few, gray matter loss is not a compulsory part of aging.

What makes a SuperAger? Unfortunately, we don’t know. These lucky individuals may have been born with thicker cortexes to begin with, or something in their genetics or environment may have shielded them from cortical loss. The twelve SuperAgers in the study did not report any particular cognitive gifts earlier in life. They’ve always had average memories and intelligence. They just didn’t lose those abilities in their so-called declining years.