'Super Agers' may offer new insights

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Often referred to as “Super Agers,” sharp-thinking seniors close to either side of 100 have brains that could yield changes in memory care and treatment for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's, according to new research.

Researchers at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine recently revealed their extensive study of memory-crisp seniors 80 and above are remarkably healthy and teeming with neuron-rich social intelligence. Some of the study participants had memories that were as good as those decades younger and with 90% fewer “tangles” than the brains of those with Alzheimer's, scientists said.

The study, published in the Jan. 28 issue of Journal of Neuroscience, is reportedly the first to quantify brain differences of Super Agers and “normal” older people. 

Understanding the brain structure unique to Super Agers may help researchers decipher the genetic or molecular underpinnings that set them apart. It also could lead to new dementia-avoidance strategies and caregiving insights, experts say.

Super Agers were first identified in 2007 by scientists at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Compared to other people of similar ages, Super Agers appear to enjoy three common advantages: a thicker region of the cortex; significantly fewer tangles (a primary marker of Alzheimer's disease) and a large supply of a specific neuron — von Economo — linked to higher social intelligence.

“The brains of the Super Agers are either wired differently or have structural differences,” said Changiz Geula, study senior author and a research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. “It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.” 

“By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features,” Gueula added. Most of the Super Ager participants planned to donate their brains to the study.

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