They’re called “super agers“—men and women who are in their 80s and 90s, but with brains and memories that seem far younger. Researchers are looking at this rare group in the hope that they may find ways to help protect others from memory loss. And they’ve had some tantalizing findings: Imaging tests have found unusually low amounts of age-related plaques along with more brain mass related to attention and memory in these elite seniors.
“Super agers can remember at least nine of them 30 minutes later, which is really impressive because often older adults in their 80s can only remember just a couple,” said study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s cognitive neurology and Alzheimer’s disease center in Chicago.
Special MRI scans have yielded other remarkable clues, Rogalski said. They show that in super agers:
the brain’s cortex, or outer layer, responsible for many mental functions including memory, is thicker than in typical 80- and 90-year-olds.
And deep within the brain, a small region called the anterior cingulate, important for attention, is bigger than even in many 50- and 60-year-olds.
The super agers aren’t just different on the inside;
they have more energy than most people their age and
share a positive, inquisitive outlook.
Rogalski said the researchers are looking into whether those traits contribute to brain health.
Other research has linked A POSITIVE ATTITUTE WITH OVERALL HEALTH.
Some studies have suggested that people who are “cognitively active and socially engaged” have a reduced chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, but which comes first—a healthy brain or a great attitude—isn’t known, said Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Edith Stern is among the super agers. The petite woman looks far younger than her 92 years, and is a vibrant presence at her Chicago retirement home, where she acts as a sort of room mother, volunteering in the gift shop, helping residents settle in and making sure their needs are met.
Stern lost most of her family in the Holocaust and takes her work seriously.
“What I couldn’t do for my parents, I try to do for the residents in the home,” she said, her voice still thick with the accent of her native Czechoslovakia.
Stern acknowledges she’s different from most people at the home, even many younger residents.
“I am young—inside. And I think that’s the difference,” she said.
“I grasp fast,” she adds. “If people say something, they don’t have to tell me twice. I don’t forget it.”
She’s different in other ways, too.