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For “Super Agers,” Bodies Age as Brains Stay Young

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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old person smoking

Early research on the sharpest octogenarians reveals unusually youthful brain regions

A nasty affliction sets into humans as they advance in years. The hair either disappears or thins into a fuzzy halo, the skin sags and bunches, while inside the brain, changes set in that slow our reaction times and cause our memories to fade. A steady, widespread thinning out of the brain’s cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, is thought to underlie some of this cognitive transformation.

But not everybody ages the same way—and not everyone, it turns out, suffers from memory decline and cortical thinning. The 48 octogenarians in the Northwestern University Super Aging Project were selected for having met or bested the average performance of a 50- or 60-year old on standard tests of recall. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of their brains corroborate their superior abilities: not only do super agers act the same as their younger counterparts, their brains look the same. “To see no change whatsoever was really surprising,” says Theresa Harrison, one of the researchers who presented preliminary findings from the project at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.

In addition to comparing the brains of the high-performing octogenarians to subjects in their fifties and sixties, the researchers also looked at cognitively average individuals in their 80s. These people showed a significant loss of gray matter compared with both middle-aged subjects and the super agers.

One region stood out, however. The super agers appeared to have a much thicker left anterior cingulate cortex than both comparison groups. The anterior cingulate cortex is generally known for its role in error detection, attention, and motivation, but its role in maintaining cognition in elderly individuals remains unexplored.

As with any unpublished data, the research here comes with major caveats. The data presented so far reflected observations from only 12 subjects; the rest are still being analyzed. In addition, the project, led by principle investigator Emily Rogalski, has not yet explored what the anterior cingulate cortex might be doing. The next steps will be to compare the connectivity between brain regions in super agers and control subjects, as well as to search for genetic factors that might explain what distinguishes these individuals.

The lifestyles maintained by the super agers seem to hint at genetic rather than environmental roots. At least superficially, they appear to be nothing alike one another beyond possessing the memory of an individual two or three decades younger. According to Harrison, one participant wears high heels every day, drinks whiskey each night, has outlived four husbands—and survived the Holocaust. Another octogenarian spent her life as a soft-spoken housewife, contracted cancer, and went through chemotherapy. Some super agers never graduated from high school, others are highly accomplished academics. Certain participants have smoked for most of their lives; at least one has stuck to a longtime diet of organic food. Some participants are on more than a dozen medications while others are taking none.

That lifestyle choices appear to have played a small role in these individuals’ cognitive aging could be seen as bad news for those of us not endowed with whatever genetic witches’ brew the lucky few possess. Or it could be the first step in the search for pharmacological interventions that go beyond the usual longevity game plan of maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and staying socially engaged. However you interpret it, though, you can’t help but love these James Dean Methuselahs, who manage to thumb their noses at the system and ride off into the sunset, brains firing on all cylinders.

Image courtesy of Sukanto Debnath, whose photography can be found here on flickr and whose concept animations are here.





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  1. 1. gmperkins 6:48 pm 11/16/2011

    It is interesting they have (possibly) identified a brain region that helps one stay ‘mentally young’. I believe that mental illness is the #1 health issue for industrialized countries since our average age keeps rising. If we cannot stay reasonably mentally healthy… then what is the point to living longer? If you cannot stay mentally healthy you will eventually become a burden on your loved ones and society. We currently outlive our ‘usefulness’, it is already a growing problem.

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  2. 2. gmperkins 6:52 pm 11/16/2011

    Oh yeah, mental illnesses are also on the rise across all age groups. No more survival of the fittest means propagation of factors that will lead to more and more health and mental illness issues. The brain is so complex that we are far behind the curve and we need to figure out both solutions as well as ethical issues concerning mental illness.

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  3. 3. bitrat 11:26 pm 11/16/2011

    The interesting aspect of this finding to me is the suggestion of lifestyle choices: If you were tested and found to belong to the “superager” genetic group, it would behoove you to be more careful healthwise: more exercise, etc etc. If you’re going to go senile at 70 from Alzheimers or whatever anyway, “eat, drink and be merry” may apply….

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  4. 4. gmperkins 2:48 pm 11/17/2011

    @bitrat

    Yes, knowing that you were or were not… would definitely change one’s perspective on how to live out one’s life.

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  5. 5. brerlou 3:07 pm 11/18/2011

    @gmperkins, you talk of survival of the fittest. This suggests you are still in the realm of determining fitness based on subjective criteria such as physical ability or task orientation based on present day circumstances. 40 years ago the great Steven Hawkin himself would have been categorized as just another human vegetable!

    As I write, there is a little 9 year old autistic running around buck naked 5 minutes after being discharged from the school bus, having escaped from his mother. When Wordsworth was alive that boy would have been called, “The Little Idiot Boy.” Barely coherent, I didn’t even know he could speak until he told his livid father recently, “Cool it Dad, take a deep breath! after he smashed his brother’s laptop on the floor.” His brain is only now connecting spoken word to life situations.

    Einstein himself didn’t speak until he was four, and not with any great facility until he was 9. So how are we to determine who is the fittest? The merest human vegetable can conceivably provide valuable data on the working of the human brain. So you need to expand your mind beyond antiquated cliched thinking!

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  6. 6. xiaochen 10:07 pm 03/14/2012

    LV Outlet Good work, hardware also OK, material for the bovine leather carry in the hands of some weight, very atmospheric, overall, is this the price or value.

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