Why a select group of seniors retain their cognitive abilities

December, 2011

Comparison of the brains of octogenarians whose memories match those of middle-aged people reveals important differences between their brains and those of cognitively-normal seniors.

A certain level of mental decline in the senior years is regarded as normal, but some fortunate few don’t suffer from any decline at all. The Northwestern University Super Aging Project has found seniors aged 80+ who match or better the average episodic memory performance of people in their fifties. Comparison of the brains of 12 super-agers, 10 cognitively-normal seniors of similar age, and 14 middle-aged adults (average age 58) now reveals that the brains of super-agers also look like those of the middle-aged. In contrast, brain scans of cognitively average octogenarians show significant thinning of the cortex.

The difference between the brains of super-agers and the others was particularly marked in the anterior cingulate cortex. Indeed, the super agers appeared to have a much thicker left anterior cingulate cortex than the middle-aged group as well. Moreover, the brain of a super-ager who died revealed that, although there were some plaques and tangles (characteristic, in much greater quantities, of Alzheimer’s) in the mediotemporal lobe, there were almost none in the anterior cingulate. (But note an earlier report from the researchers)

Why this region should be of special importance is somewhat mysterious, but the anterior cingulate is part of the attention network, and perhaps it is this role that underlies the superior abilities of these seniors. The anterior cingulate also plays a role error detection and motivation; it will be interesting to see if these attributes are also important.

While the precise reason for the anterior cingulate to be critical to retaining cognitive abilities might be mysterious, the lack of cortical atrophy, and the suggestion that super-agers’ brains have much reduced levels of the sort of pathological damage seen in most older brains, adds weight to the growing evidence that cognitive aging reflects clinical problems, which unfortunately are all too common.

Sadly, there are no obvious lifestyle factors involved here. The super agers don’t have a lifestyle any different from their ‘cognitively average’ counterparts. However, while genetics might be behind these people’s good fortune, that doesn’t mean that lifestyle choices don’t make a big difference to those of us not so genetically fortunate. It seems increasingly clear that for most of us, without ‘super-protective genes’, health problems largely resulting from lifestyle choices are behind much of the damage done to our brains.

It should be emphasized that these unpublished results are preliminary only. This conference presentation reported on data from only 12 of 48 subjects studied.

Reference: 

Harrison, T., Geula, C., Shi, J., Samimi, M., Weintraub, S., Mesulam, M. & Rogalski, E. 2011. Neuroanatomic and pathologic features of cognitive SuperAging. Presented at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.

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