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Published on: August 17, 2012
by Rebecca Smith for The Daily Telegraph:
They are the grandparents whose quick wit, Scrabble skills and verbal dexterity routinely belie their age and leave relations struggling to keep up.
Now scientists have discovered that they are among a group of octogenarian “super-agers” who have brains like people 30 years younger.
MRI scans have found that some people in their eighties have more developed sections of the brain associated with memory, attention and thinking skills.
The researchers believe that for some people the rare ability to withstand the effects of ageing is in the genes, while for others it may be down to a combination of genes and a healthy way of life. It is hoped that the discovery, by Northwestern University in Chicago, could lead to new approaches to the treatment of dementia.
Emily Rogalski, an assistant professor in cognitive neurology, said: “The super-agers really are a diverse group, not all were wealthy, some exercised five times a week while others only ran if they were chased.
“Some individuals smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years and had a Martini each evening while others never touched alcohol or cigarettes.
“So it seems there are different paths to becoming a super-ager. There may be some people for whom genetics is very important and they are able to get away with being unhealthy and still have super brains.”
Researchers scanned the brains of 12 people in their eighties who scored extremely highly on memory and thinking tests, with average results similar to or better than middle-aged people.
They then compared them with the brain scans of 10 normally ageing 80 year-olds and middle-aged people.
In bright octogenarians, the outer layer of the brain, the cortex, is thicker and more like that of someone in their fifties. Professor Rogalski said that the phenomenon is rare, and he had whittled down 300 people who thought they had superior reasoning to just 30 after tests.
The super-agers included one woman who had survived the Holocaust, drank whisky each night and outlived four husbands. Another spent her life as a housewife, contracted cancer, and went through chemotherapy.
Some were on a multitude of medicines for various conditions while others were physically healthy.
Prof Rogalski said: “By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how super-agers are able to maintain their good memory.
“Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of super-agers.
“What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combating Alzheimer’s disease.”
Another part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, of the super-agers was also thicker than in the 50 to 65 year-olds.
Prof Rogalski said: “This is pretty incredible. This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the super-agers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories. These are a special group of people.”
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