17 August 2012

Elite Group of Elderly "SuperAgers" Over 80 Have Younger Sharper Acting Brains

Dementia is a loss of brain function that occurs with certain diseases. It affects brain performance such as memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior. Dementia is a serious loss of global cognitive ability in a previously unimpaired or normal person, beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It may be static dementia, the result of a unique global brain injury, or progressive dementia, resulting in long-term decline due to damage or disease in the body.

Although dementia is associated with the elderly, there are cases that occur to patients below the age of 65. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia.

There are many stages of dementia, it usually first appears as forgetfulness.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the early beginnings of dementia. People affected with MCI have mild problems with thinking and memory that do not interfere with everyday activities. They are often aware of the forgetfulness. MCI does not guarantee the onset of dementia.

Aside from memory problems, dementia reduces the ability to learn, reason, retain or recall past experience and there is also loss of patterns of thoughts, feelings and activities. Mental and behavioral problems arise and may affect the person's quality of life.

Secrets of 'SuperAger' brains

Researchers have long chronicled what goes wrong in the brains of older people with dementia. But Northwestern Medicine researcher Emily Rogalski wondered what goes right in the brains of the elderly who still have terrific memories. And, do those people – call them cognitive SuperAgers --- even exist?

Rogalski's new study has for the first time identified an elite group of elderly people age 80 and older whose memories are as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger than them. And on 3-D MRI scans, the SuperAger participants' brains appear as young -– and one brain region was even bigger –- than the brains of the middle-aged participants.

She was astounded by the vitality of the SuperAgers' cortex – the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities. Theirs was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of elderly 80 and older (whose showed significant thinning) and closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65, considered the middle-aged group of the study.

"These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging," said Rogalski, the principal investigator of the study and an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Video: How The Brain Works

Rogalski is senior author of the paper, which is published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

By identifying older people who seem to be uniquely protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of their youthful brains. Those discoveries may be applied to protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer's disease.

"By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory," Rogalski said. "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 SuperAgers. What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combatting Alzheimer's disease."

By measuring the thickness of the cortex – the outer layer of the brain where neurons (brain cells) reside – Rogalski has a sense of how many brain cells are left.

"We can't actually count them, but the thickness of the outer cortex of the brain provides an indirect measure of the health of the brain," she said. "A thicker cortex, suggests a greater number of neurons."

In another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate of SuperAger participants' was actually thicker than in the 50 to 65 year olds.

"This is pretty incredible," Rogalski said. "This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories."

Only 10 percent of the people who "thought they had outstanding memories" met the criteria for the study. To be defined as a SuperAger, the participants needed to score at or above the norm of the 50 to 65 year olds on memory screenings.

"These are a special group of people," Rogalski said. They aren't growing on trees."

For the study, Rogalski viewed the MRI scans of 12 Chicago-area Superager participants' brains and screened their memory and other cognitive abilities. The study included 10 normally aging elderly participants who were an average age of 83.1 and 14 middle-aged participants who were an average age of 57.9. There were not significant differences in education among the groups.

Most of the SuperAger participants plan to donate their brains to the study. "By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features," Rogalski said.


Northwestern University
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society
Alzheimer's Disease Research Centers
Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University
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