Research with SuperAgers seeks to unlock the key to dementia

There are those among us who have ‘super’ powers. And those ‘super’ older people may be able to help unlock some of the secrets to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which in turn may help us find a cure.

The ‘super power’ referred to here is being an older person (over 80) who possesses the cognitive abilities of someone 30 years younger. By looking at the brains of these ‘SuperAgers’, scientists are hoping to identify differences compared with the brains of dementia sufferers.

By identifying and then understanding the causes of the differences, they hope to find a cure or, better still, a way to prevent the onset of dementia.

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Researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago have been looking into what differentiates these SuperAgers from others the same age, and they have published their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

The researchers wondered if there were potential differences in a specific part of the brain between SuperAgers and others of the same age with normal cognitive abilities, as well as much younger individuals, and those with early onset dementia.

It is well known that ageing is generally associated with a gradual decline in memory capacity. What is it within the brain that prevents that decline in SuperAgers? The researchers focused on neuronal integrity in the ‘entorhinal cortex’ (ERC), an area critical for memory and selectively vulnerable to the ravages of dementia.

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Previous studies had involved MRI technology, but this study required the brains of deceased persons. The researchers did post-mortem examinations on the brains of six SuperAgers, seven cognitively average octogenarians, five people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and six younger donors who had died from non-brain-related disease.

What did they find?

The researchers found that the ERC does appear to play a key role in making a SuperAger. Specifically, they were able to show that SuperAgers have larger, healthier neurons in the ERC compared to their cognitively average same-aged peers and those with mild cognitive impairment. Perhaps more remarkably, their neurons were larger and healthier than even individuals 20 to 30 years younger.

With the role of the ERC confirmed, the next step is to work out what makes and keeps the neurons of SuperAgers in such good shape.

Lead researcher at Northwestern, Professor Tamar Gefen, says the plan is to build a detailed picture of SuperAgers to understand more. “We need to study their genetics, lifestyle factors and educational attainment,” he says. “We also need to capture their history and personal narratives.”

Prof. Gefen’s team is continuing to do this through what’s known as the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program. Started more than a decade ago, the program aims to find out what keeps the brain cognitively sharp and protects people from dementia.

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Dr Rosa Sancho, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, believes projects such as the SuperAging Program might help find and develop new treatments for dementia. “Further research will need to uncover exactly what causes these SuperAger brain cells to be larger and better protected,” she said.

While definitive answers might be some years away, Dr Sancho said there are still “small steps we can all take to keep our brains healthy as we age”. These include the old favourites: abstaining from smoking, a healthy diet and exercising.

In short, for now your best chance of becoming a SuperAger is to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Do you have an octogenarian in your family with an excellent memory? Have any of your family members been involved in dementia research? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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