Brain Secrets of “SuperAgers”

An explosion of new research aims to solve a scientific mystery: Why do some people’s minds stay laser-sharp well into old age?

In a scientific first, a new Northwestern Medicine study has identified an elite group dubbed “SuperAgers,” people age 80 or older whose brains look and behave as if they were decades younger. Study author Emily Rogalski, PhD, was astonished to discover that on 3-D MRI brain scans, SuperAgers had a much thicker cortex (the region involved in memory, attention, and other cognitive skills) than did study participants ages 50 to 65.

"These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging," said Rogalski, who is assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The study compared 12 SuperAgers (people ages 80 or older whose scores on memory tests were at or above the norm for 50- to 65-year-olds) with 10 typically aging seniors (average age 83) and 14 middle-aged people (average age 58). The researchers hope that insights from the ongoing study may lead to new ways to protect the elderly from memory loss.

SuperAgers in the study include “an octogenarian attorney, a 96-year-old retired neuroscientist, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a nightly martini,” according to Associated Press. Fewer than 10 percent of those who tried to sign up for the study, which is continuing to enroll participants, met the rigorous criteria.

Other new studies are uncovering surprisingly simple—and often enjoyable—ways to keep your mind sharp. Here’s a look at some of the latest discoveries.

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Music may keep us mentally limber

People who play a musical instrument are better problem solvers and are less likely to suffer mental decline due to age or illness, researchers from St. Andrews University report. The team found that amateur musicians (including those who spent relatively little time practicing their instrument) were quicker to notice and correct mistakes during mental tests, compared to non-musicians. “The research suggests that musical activity could be used as an effective intervention to slow, stop or even reverse age, or illness, related decline in mental functioning,” lead researcher Ines Jentzsch, PhD, told BBC News.

Video games rev up old brains

When elderly people play a 3-D multitasking video game called NeuroRacer, their short-term memory and long-term focus improved significantly, according to a new study published in Nature. The game involves steering a car along a winding, hilly road with the user’s left thumb, while road signs randomly pop up. Players have to shoot certain signs with their right hand. After playing increasingly difficult levels of the game for 4 weeks, people as old as 85 achieved higher scores than untrained 20-year-olds and retained these multitasking skills 6 months later. The game is not commercially available, but Akili Interactive Labs is testing a game based on the same technology that may be released in the future.

Fish really is brain food

Closely following a Mediterranean diet high in fish, vegetables, fruit, and olive oil is linked to better cognitive function, according to the first systematic review of scientific evidence. “Mediterranean food is both delicious and nutritious, and our systematic review shows it may help to protect the ageing brain by reducing the risk of dementia,” said lead researcher Iliana Lourida in a statement. Eating a Mediterranean diet plus extra servings of nuts cuts risk for stroke by a whopping 46 percent, even in people at high risk, according to a very large randomized study published in New England Journal of Medicine.

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The wisdom of experience leads to smarter financial decisions

Although the brains of older people typically slow down, experience may still give them a mental edge in financial matters, according to a new paper published in Psychology and Aging. The study is thought to be the first to look at decision-making across the lifespan by analyzing two types of intelligence: fluid and crystalized. Fluid intelligence is the ability to learn and process new information (which drops with age); crystalized intelligence is accumulated knowledge and experience. In the study, 173 young people (ages 18 to 29) and 163 older people (ages 60 to 82) were asked a series of questions that measure economic decision-making traits and tested on the two types of intelligence. The older group scored as well or better than the younger on all decision-making measures. “The findings confirm our hypothesis that experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision making help offset the declining ability to learn and process new information,” said study author Ye Li, PhD, in a report.

Healthy lifestyle changes may reverse cellular aging

A small, but intriguing new study suggests that healthy improvements in lifestyle—such as eating a diet that’s high in plants, exercising regularly, and managing stress—may actually undo the genetic effects of aging. The study examined the impact of these healthy changes on telomeres, protective caps at the end of chromosomes that are like the plastic on shoelaces. Shorter telomeres have been linked to a shorter life and increased risk for age-related diseases like dementia in earlier studies. The researchers randomly divided 35 older men into two groups. One was advised to walk 30 minutes a day, follow a low-fat, plant-based diet, and reduce stress with 60 minutes daily of yogic stretching, breathing, meditation and relaxation, while the other group followed their usual lifestyle. After 5 years, the healthy habits group had telomeres that were 10 percent longer than at baseline, while the other group’s telomeres shrank by an average of 3 percent.

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