Scientists Crack the Code of “Super-ager” Brains — Here’s How to Stay Mentally Alert



How is it that some people in their 80s and 90s have the sharp mental acuity of people in their 50s or younger?

Called ‘Superagers’, these extraordinary octogenarians (plus) have recently become the topic of study by scientists at Chicago’s Northwestern University interested in finding out why certain seniors seem to defy the typical degeneration of mental capacities, writes the Associated Press.

Neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, who leads the SuperAging study, launched the study after seeing all the research into the debilitating effects of Alzheimer and saying to herself, “why don’t we figure out what it is we might need to do to maximize our memory?”

As we age, parts of the brain shrink, which is why our elder citizens experience a growing limitation to their powers of memory. The area of the brain related to this, the cortex, is what Rogalski and her team focused on.

The study, which analyzed the post-mortem brains of superagers and normal seniors while simultaneously conducting simple tests on volunteers, found that the brains of superagers are not shrinking as fast as that of the control group. In fact, the analysis revealed that the cortex in superagers was thicker than those in normal senior brains.

In addition, the brains of superagers were also found to possess a unique type of nerve cell deep in the cortex. The study found that these cells were unusually large, spindly neurons called von Economo neurons, believed to assist in social processing and awareness. Superagers were said to have four to five times the number of von Economo neurons than the average senior.

This plethora of special neurons may explain the prevalence of one shared trait among superagers: sociability.

The AP writes:

“Rogalski’s superagers tend to be extroverts and report strong social networks, but otherwise they come from all walks of life, making it hard to find a common trait for brain health. Some went to college, some didn’t. Some have high IQs, some are average. She’s studied people who’ve experienced enormous trauma, including a Holocaust survivor; fitness buffs and smokers; teetotalers and those who tout a nightly martini.”

“They are living long and living well,” Rogalski said. “Are there modifiable things we can think about today, in our everyday lives” to do the same, she asks.

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