Published on: October 16, 2016
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
It is widely believed that cognitive abilities inevitably decline with age, but is that really true? Certainly, many older people do experience declining memory and thinking abilities as time goes on, but there are some elderly people who defy the norm, and researchers are studying them more closely than ever to learn what keeps their brains so healthy compared to their peers. Discovering the biological secrets behind their healthy brains may help in the development of treatments that prevent or reverse dementia.
Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago have been studying the brains of cognitively elite elders, referred to as “SuperAgers.” Study participants that display exceptional episodic memory, meaning they can recollect personal experiences and events, and all associated contexts and emotions with no difficulty, are rare individuals with memories that are “as sharp as those of healthy persons decades younger,” according to the university’s press release about the research. And, it turns out their brains have structural differences that make them unique. Research so far has revealed:
The SuperAgers’ cortex was much thicker than the cortex of cognitively-normal individuals aged 80+; it was actually similar in thickness to what is typical in people 20 to 30 years younger. (The cortex is the outer layer of the brain, and is important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities.)
SuperAgers have unusually low density of the tangles* associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
SuperAgers have an unusually high supply of a particular neuron, von Economo, which is linked to social intelligence.
These findings point to potential biological factors that may be keeping the SuperAgers’ brains so healthy. At this point though, it is unclear why SuperAgers’ brains are different. Additional research is underway to further understand what makes SuperAgers so unique.
The Wellderly study, conducted by researchers from the Scripps Translational Science Institute in California, examined what is unique about the genetics of exceptionally healthy older adults. Participants in the study, referred to as “Wellderly” because of their unusual health for their age, were between 80 and 105 years old, and free from any significant chronic medical condition such as dementia, heart disease and diabetes. DNA analyses were conducted on the genomes of 511 Wellderly participants and 686 adults who were part of a separate study (and represented the general population).
The analysis comparing the two groups took eight years and revealed a higher-than-normal presence of genetic variants that offer protection from cognitive decline among the Wellderly participants. This suggests a potential link between long-term cognitive health and protection from chronic diseases. The researchers suggest that the gene variants discovered “might offer a pathway for the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s.”
Healthy Italian Centenarians
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine (UCSD) are teaming up with colleagues from
University of Rome La Sapienza to study a group of 300 centenarians living in a remote Italian village, Acciaroli. Not only are these residents over 100 years old, they are also “known to have very low rates of heart disease and Alzheimer’s,” according to a UCSD article that announced the project in March 2016.
Part of what makes this village so interesting is that there are 300 centenarians among a total population of only 2,000, representing a staggering 15% of the population. As a comparison, the percentage in the United State is only a low 0.02%. This aims to be a long-term study that includes a full genetic analysis and an examination of lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, in an attempt to determine why this group is living so long and staying so healthy in the hopes that the biological secret will be revealed.
* According to the Alzheimer’s Association, tangles are twisted strands that form when tau protein necessary to keep cells healthy collapses.
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