Photo: AP/ Teresa Crawford
Photo: AP/ Teresa Crawford
February 22, 2018 07:02 AM
It's pretty extraordinary for people in their 80s and 90s to keep the same sharp memory as someone several decades younger, and now scientists are peeking into the brains of these "superagers" to uncover their secret.
The work is the flip side of the disappointing hunt for new drugs to fight or prevent Alzheimer's disease.
Instead, "why don't we figure out what it is we might need to do to maximize our memory?" said neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, who leads the SuperAging study at Chicago's Northwestern University.
Parts of the brain shrink with age, one of the reasons why most people experience a gradual slowing of at least some types of memory late in life, even if they avoid diseases like Alzheimer's.
But it turns out that superagers' brains aren't shrinking nearly as fast as their peers'. And autopsies of the first superagers to die during the study show they harbor a lot more of a special kind of nerve cell in a deep brain region that's important for attention, Rogalski told a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
These elite elders are "more than just an oddity or a rarity," said neuroscientist Molly Wagster of the National Institute on Aging, which helps fund the research. "There's the potential for learning an enormous amount and applying it to the rest of us, and even to those who may be on a trajectory for some type of neurodegenerative disease."
What does it take to be a superager? A youthful brain in the body of someone 80 or older. Rogalski's team has given a battery of tests to more than 1,000 people who thought they'd qualify, and only about 5 percent pass. The key memory challenge: Listen to 15 unrelated words, and a half-hour later recall at least nine. That's the norm for 50-year-olds, but the average 80-year-old recalls five. Some superagers remember them all.
"It doesn't mean you're any smarter," stressed superager William "Bill" Gurolnick, who turns 87 next month and joined the study two years ago.
Nor can he credit protective genes: Gurolnick's father developed Alzheimer's in his 50s. He thinks his own stellar memory is bolstered by keeping busy. He bikes, and plays tennis and water volleyball. He stays social through regular lunches and meetings with a men's group he co-founded.
"Absolutely that's a critical factor about keeping your wits about you," exclaimed Gurolnick, fresh off his monthly gin game.
Rogalski's superagers tend to be extroverts and report strong social networks, but otherwise they come from all walks of life, making it hard to find a common trait for brain health. Some went to college, some didn't. Some have high IQs, some are average. She's studied people who've experienced enormous trauma, including a Holocaust survivor; fitness buffs and smokers; teetotalers and those who tout a nightly martini.
But deep in their brains is where she's finding compelling hints that somehow, superagers are more resilient against the ravages of time.
The Associated Press
Created: February 22, 2018 07:02 AM
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