Meet the 'Super Agers'

The 80 and 90-year-olds with much younger brains and memories who could unlock the mystery of ageing

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They’re called ‘super agers’ – men and women who are in their 80s and 90s, but with brains and memories that seem far younger.

U.S. researchers are looking at this rare group in the hope that they may find ways to help protect others from memory loss. 

Neuroscientists have become excited, as imaging tests have revealed unusually low amounts of age-related plaques along with more brain mass related to attention and memory in these elite seniors.

‘We’re living long but we’re not necessarily living well in our older years and so we hope that the Super Ageing study can find factors that are modifiable and that we’ll be able to use those to help people live long and live well,’ said study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s cognitive neurology and Alzheimer’s disease centre in Chicago.

The study is still seeking volunteers, but fewer than 10 per cent of would-be participants have met study criteria.

Dr Rogalski said: ‘We’ve screened over 400 people at this point and only about 35 of them have been eligible for this study, so it really represents a rare portion of the population.’

They include an octogenarian attorney, a 96-year-old retired neuroscientist, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a nightly martini.

To qualify, would-be participants have to undergo a battery of mental tests. Once enrolled, they have periodic imaging scans and other medical tests. Critically, they also must be willing to donate their brains after death.

The memory tests include lists of about 15 words and Dr Rogalski said ‘super agers can remember at least nine of them 30 minutes later, which is really impressive because often older adults in their 80s can only remember just a couple.’

Special MRI scans have yielded other remarkable clues, Dr Rogalski said. 

They show that in super agers, the brain’s cortex, or outer layer, responsible for many mental functions including memory, is thicker than in typical 80 and 90-year-olds. 

Deep within the brain, a small region called the anterior cingulate, which is important for attention, is bigger than in many 50 and 60-year-olds.

The super agers aren’t just different on the inside; they have more energy than most people their age and share a positive, inquisitive outlook, according to the scientists.

Dr Rogalski said the researchers are looking into whether those traits contribute to brain health and other research has linked a positive attitude with overall health.

Some studies have suggested that people who are ‘cognitively active and socially engaged’ have a reduced chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, but scientists do not know which comes first – a healthy brain or a great attitude, according to Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dr Snyder said the super ageing study is an important effort that may help provide some answers.

Edith Stern is among the super agers. The petite woman looks far younger than her 92 years, and is a vibrant presence at her Chicago retirement home, where she acts as a sort of room mother, volunteering in the gift shop, helping residents settle in and making sure their needs are met. 

Stern lost most of her family in the Holocaust and takes her work seriously. 

‘What I couldn’t do for my parents, I try to do for the residents in the home,’ she said, her voice still thick with the accent of her native Czechoslovakia.

Stern acknowledges she’s different from most people at the home, even many younger residents. 

‘I am young – inside. And I think that’s the difference,’ she said.

‘I grasp fast…If people say something, they don’t have to tell me twice. I don’t forget it.’

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