As we get older, our brains begin to suffer from age-related memory loss, and there are several reasons that have been speculated as to why so many seniors have such a difficult time with thinking and memory. The first is the “disuse” view, which states that memory strategies are used less by older adults as they move further away from the educational system. Second is the “diminished attentional capacity” hypothesis, which means that older people engage less in self-initiated encoding due to reduced attentional capacity. The third reason is the “memory self-efficacy,” which indicates that older people do not have confidence in their own memory performances, leading to poor consequences. On top of this, there is a significant loss in brain matter in the aging human brain.
Recently, however, an exceptionally rare group of seniors was discovered who appear to be immune from the typical loss of thinking and memory that occurs in the brains of almost all seniors. They are each over the age of 80 and have become known as the “Super Agers” for their extremely rare gift of being able to age gracefully from a cognitive perspective. In a study published this past Thursday, Emily Rogalski, Assistant Research Professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and her team made the discovery and they observed two fascinating characteristics in particular that exist inside the “super brains” of these super seniors.
In a feature published in CNN yesterday, CNN Medical Producer Stephanie Smith writes: “The area of the brain housing the most dense concentration of cells (the outer layer of the brain, called the cortex) was quite thick in Super Agers – much thicker than you might see in a typical group of 80-year-olds. The cortex is important for, among other functions, memory. Among the 12 Super Agers, scanned using MRI, cortical thickness was not significantly different than a control group of 14 people in their 50s and 60s. ‘So they’re over age 80 and their memory performance is at least as good as people in their 50s or 60s,’ said Rogalski, the study’s senior author. ‘They’ve been able to get around this process (of cognitive decline) that seems so probable in most individuals.'”
Second of all, CNN adds: “It’s not just the cortex that is so robust among Super Agers, but also an area called the anterior cingulate cortex. Researchers were surprised to find that the anterior cingulate is even thicker among Super Agers than the middle-aged control group. The anterior cingulate, says Rogalski, is important for attention, which in turn can support memory functions. The analogy she uses is rattling off a list of 10 items for a friend to pick up at the grocery store. If that friend is not paying attention to the items on the list, once arriving to the store, he or she might be cruising the aisles with little or no memory of what to pick up. ‘Super Agers may have a keen sense of attention, allowing them to focus better, and that supports their memory,’ said Rogalski, whose research is published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.”
These Super Agers will be studied by the Northwestern research team for years to come in order to help discover a possible cure for not only age-related memory loss, but also Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. You can read the entire story by visiting CNN. And for some fascinating insight into age-related memory loss, Alzheimer’s and dementia, be sure to watch Charlie Rose’s incredible special episode dedicated entirely to generalized defects in cognition. You can watch it by CLICKING HERE (once on the Charlie Rose page, click on Alison Goate’s image to start the video player).