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Super Agers

Our social upbringing has conditioned us to expect that we will all experience increasing mental decline of some sort as we get older, even if we do not suffer from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. This is supposed to be a normal part of the aging process. However, we all know—or have heard of—at least one or two people who are in their 80s or 90s and are still as mentally sharp as people half their age. One such person who comes to mind is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who continued to serve on the Supreme Court until her recent death, in September of this year, and who was in full possession of her mental faculties and as engaged in the court’s business as any of her younger counterparts on the bench. There are, in fact, quite a few people like Justice Ginsberg, and scientists are now using the term “Super Agers” to describe them.

Over the past decade, several studies have been done to find out what gives super agers their special ability to retain their mental faculties into their very late years, and even right up until the end. We have known for a long time that brains shrink as people get older, since brain cells die faster than they can be replaced, beginning in middle age and then accelerating with the onset of old age. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago have discovered that the brains of super agers shrink at a slower rate than that of the average adult—the normal rate is more than double that of the super agers’ rate. The researchers also found that a region of the brain that is responsible for integrating information connected with memory, attention, and motivation is thicker in super agers than it is in average people of the same age, and in some parts of this region even thicker than it is in middle-aged people. In addition, the brains of super agers have a higher concentration of a certain type of brain cell that is associated with social intelligence and awareness—in some cases even higher than it is in young adults. It is also discovered that super agers had more family connections and friends than average people of the same age, confirming that social connectivity and psychological well-being are important factors in lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

A study at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that super agers had memory and recall that was comparable to that of 18- to 30-year old subjects, and that their hippocampus was significantly larger than the hippocampus of average people of their age.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery about super agers comes from a study by a team at the University of California, Irvine. Based on autopsies and PET scans, many super agers’ brains had the characteristic beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles associated with Alzheimer’s. Conventional wisdom tells us that these plaques and tangles are responsible for the cognitive decline connected with Alzheimer’s. However, super agers challenge this conventional wisdom and scientists still do not have an explanation. One scientist, Dr. Yaakov Stern, at Columbia University, offers a possible explanation using the language of computers. He suggests that perhaps super agers’ brains have “software” that finds ways to work around problems that arise in the brain’s “hardware”- they have developed cognitive skills that can bypass the plaques and tangles and keep the brain functioning in spite of them.

The National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is actively engaged in providing funding for research into super agers in the hope that understanding what gives these fortunate individuals their special abilities will provide insights into how Alzheimer’s and other dementias might be prevented, and even reversed, and that eventually the quality of life will be improved for all our senior citizen.

Safe and Happy Holidays to All!