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What’s the ‘SuperAgers’ Mental Secret?

Seniors--superagersBy Dennis Thompson

At 89, Donald Tenbrunsel is a bit of a phenomenon. He surfs the internet with ease, happily converses on a broad range of timely topics, volunteers and reads regularly.

Known as a “SuperAger,” Tenbrunsel was part of a study that helped researchers discover what factors might set these super-sharp seniors apart from their peers.

The secret? Brain scans showed they experience brain aging twice as slowly as average folks their age.
“This suggests the SuperAgers are on a different trajectory of aging,” said senior researcher Emily Rogalski. She is director of neuroimaging for Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “They’re losing their brain volume at a much slower rate than average agers.”

For the study, Rogalski and her colleagues measured brain aging by examining the thickness of each person’s cortex — the outer layer of folded gray matter in the brain.

The cortex is where consciousness lies, and where all of the neurons that fire thoughts and movements are located. It is a critical part of the brain for higher-level thinking, memory, planning and problem-solving, Rogalski said.

Another neurologist explained it this way:
“That is essentially our brain,” said Dr. Paul Wright, chair of neurology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “Brain shrinkage occurs in the natural progression over time, and when you lose brain volume, you lose function.”

Rogalski noted that previous research has shown that the cortexes of SuperAgers look less worn than their average 80-year-old peers, and about the same as people in their 50s or 60s.

But a question remained — were the SuperAgers born with brains that have more volume, and thus could better withstand the travails of aging? Or are their brains the same size as everyone else’s, and simply aging less rapidly?

To answer that question, the researchers tracked changes in cortex thickness for a year and a half in 24 SuperAgers and 12 average elderly people.

Both groups lost a significant amount of brain volume to aging, but average elderly people experienced a loss more than twice that of the SuperAgers — over 2.2 percent versus 1.1 percent.

“Part of the reason why they may have different brain volumes is because over the decades they’ve been losing their brain volume at a different rate,” Rogalski said.

The findings were published April 4 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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