Common wisdom tells us that a decline in memory and thinking skills is an inevitable part of aging. But is it really?
A group dubbed "super agers" -- men and women in their 80s and 90s with brains and memories that seem decades younger -- would suggest otherwise.
For years, researchers have been fascinated by this segment of the population -- seniors who display unusually low amounts of age-related plaque as well as more of the brain mass associated with memory and attention abilities. Specifically, MRIs have shown that the anterior cingulate -- or the small area inside the brain that's important for thinking skills -- is larger in the super agers than it is in 50- and 60-year-old brains. In addition, memory tests have shown the super agers to have the same thinking skills as middle-aged people.
And that's why a new study of super agers is being launched in an effort to help find ways to protect others from cognitive decline.
"We're living long but we're not necessarily living well in our older years and so we hope that the SuperAging study can find factors that are modifiable and that we'll be able to use those to help people live long and live well," study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University's cognitive neurology and Alzheimer's disease center in Chicago, told the Associated Press.
She and other researchers are looking for volunteers -- older people free of cognitive decline -- for this new study of super agers. So far, more than 400 people have been screened, with about 35 of them chosen. They include a 96-year-old retired neuroscientist and an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a nightly martini, according to the Associated Press.
Only a year ago, Rogalski completed another study that for the first time identified this elite group of elderly people age 80 and older whose memories are as sharp as those 20 to 30 years younger.
She said she was amazed by the vitality of this group's cortex -- or the outer layer of the brain that's key for memory, attention and other thinking abilities. Theirs was much thicker than the cortex of most elderly people and it was much like the cortex size of those 50 to 65. The super agers also seemed to have more energy and a more positive outlook on life.
"These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging," Rogalski said at the time.
Even as far back as 2008, Northwestern University researchers studied the brains of older people with laser sharp memories and found that they had many fewer fiber-like tangles than the brains of those who had aged normally. The tangles consist of a protein called tau that accumulates inside brain cells and is thought to eventually kill the cells. Tangles are found in moderate numbers in the brains of the elderly and increase dramatically in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients.
As research continues, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of the super agers' youthful brains, and apply the knowledge to helping others suffering from Alzheimer's and memory loss.