For “Super Agers,” Bodies Age as Brains Stay Young

Sandra Upson

old person smoking

Early research on the sharpest octogenarians reveals unusually youthful brain regions

A nasty affliction sets into humans as they advance in years. The hair either disappears or thins into a fuzzy halo, the skin sags and bunches, while inside the brain, changes set in that slow our reaction times and cause our memories to fade. A steady, widespread thinning out of the brain’s cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, is thought to underlie some of this cognitive transformation.

But not everybody ages the same way—and not everyone, it turns out, suffers from memory decline and cortical thinning. The 48 octogenarians in the Northwestern University Super Aging Project were selected for having met or bested the average performance of a 50- or 60-year old on standard tests of recall. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of their brains corroborate their superior abilities: not only do super agers act the same as their younger counterparts, their brains look the same. “To see no change whatsoever was really surprising,” says Theresa Harrison, one of the researchers who presented preliminary findings from the project at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.

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