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.
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.