Behold the SuperAgers!
In an era oversaturated with films based on comic book heroes, you might think that a "SuperAger" is the next incarnation of movie star personas. Luckily, SuperAgers are not comic book characters. They are real, and they have much to teach us about aging well.
In an article recently published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, researchers from Northwestern University described SuperAgers as people over the age of 80 who continue to exhibit a high level of cognitive functioning compared to others their age who show normal age-related memory loss. SuperAgers are still planning complicated social functions and teaching classes. They are voracious readers and active travelers. In essence, they are living the kinds of lives we most often associate with people 10, 20, and 30 years their junior.
It's true that older adults who do not develop dementia still often experience some degree of memory decline. But not these folks. The researchers decided to try to identify what's going well within the brains of SuperAgers with the hope that light will be shed on how to prevent the onset of memory loss.
I like the idea of pinpointing what is going right inside the brain instead of the more common approach that seeks to explore what is wrong. We need both strategies to unravel such complicated neural questions.
The research team identified 12 SuperAgers in the Chicago area and studied them at the university's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. No worries, they didn't poke and prod them too much. However, they did perform brain scans to see if and how their brains differed from others over 80 as well as from people ages 50 to 65.
Lo and behold, the SuperAgers' brains were different! First, the SuperAgers boasted cerebral cortexes that were thicker than others their age and just as thick as those in the middle-aged group. Why is this important? Because the cerebral cortex - the outer, wrinkled layer of the brain - is linked to memory ability. In fact, a shrinking cerebral cortex is thought to contribute to normal age-related memory decline.
Second, another part of the brain - the left anterior cingulate cortex - was significantly thicker in the SuperAgers than it was in both the non-SuperAgers and in the middle-aged group.
The left anti…what? I know, it sounds strange. But the left anterior cingulate cortex affects a host of cognitive functions, one of which is attention. If SuperAgers have a thick left anterior cingulate cortex, they may have better attention skills that improve the ability to note details that enhance memory performance.
Since the study was published, the researchers have recruited several more SuperAgers to bring their sample to 30. They know there is still much to learn from these folks about aging well. And if we can figure out how to thrive as octogenarians, perhaps we can learn how to stave off dementia too.
T. M. Harrison, S. Weintraub, M. M. Mesulam, & E. Rogalski (2012). Superior memory and higher cortical volumes in unusually successful cognitive aging. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, August, 1-5.