According to a study by the Northwestern University Super Aging Project, there are some seniors who have been able to outsmart their peers and avoid any mental decline that usually occurs as we age. What makes them different from the majority?

A certain amount of mental decline is normal as we age, but it seems that some seniors have been able to outwit it. the Northwestern study found seniors over 80 years of age who not only matched, but even beat out memory performance of people in their fifties! The researchers found important differences in thinning of the cortex between some older brains in comparison to that of a normal-aging brain at the same age.

The research compared the brains of 10 normally developing seniors over 80 and 12 seniors of the same age who showed no memory decline, against 14 middle-aged adults whose average age was 58. The “super-agers”, as they were dubbed, had much thicker left anterior cingulate cortex than even the middle age group. In addition, the brain of one super-ager who had died revealed that, although there was some plaque and tangles in the mediotemporal lobe, characteristic in larger quantities in patients with Alzheimer’s, there was none at all in the anterior cingulated.

They are not certain what all this means in why some people with this thickening are better at keeping their brains intact they do know that the anterior cingulated is part of the attention network in the brain, as well as playing a role in error detection and motivation.

Although there is still a mystery as to why, this preliminary study does suggest that those super-agers have less pathological damage or clinical problems than seen in most older brains, which seems to be all too common with cognitive aging.

There seems to be no obvious lifestyle changes that would be a factor. Perhaps there is just the luck of the draw when it comes to “good genes.” It seems to be increasingly clear that “super-protective genes” and problems with health resulting from poor lifestyle choices are behind a great deal of the damage to our brains.

Note: It should be emphasized that these unpublished results are preliminary only. This conference presentation reported on data from only 12 of 48 subjects studied.

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker interested in anything to do with the brain and its functions.




Mempowered! Why a select group of seniors retain their cognitive abilities:

Harrison, T., Geula, C., Shi, J., Samimi, M., Weintraub, S., Mesulam, M. & Rogalski, E. 2011. Neuroanatomic and pathologic features of cognitive SuperAging. Presented at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.