"Super agers" don't lose brainpower as they age the way regular people do.
According to pop culture, when people age, their minds start to go. If television and movies are any indication, pretty much all elderly people forget basic facts about their lives and have shaky grasps on reality.
"Really, we think that memory declines on average over the lifespan and that decline or that peak in our memory really might hit in our thirties and it starts going down in there," explained Emily Rogalski, a psychiatry propfessor at Northwestern University. "And so if you look at that picture, it's pretty bleak, right?"
That's why Rogalski and her colleagues decided to study "super agers": people over 80 who had the memory skills of people in their 60s and 50s (and 40s, and 30s). As it turns out, these folks are all over the place. The scientists even found a 104-year-old who qualified.The scientists wanted to know what made these super-agers so special. So the researchers scanned their brains and discovered something amazing.
"The super agers brains looked indistinguishable from a group of healthy 50 to 60-year-olds," Rogalski explained. "And then there was a certain part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which is really important for attention and attention supports memory. That part of the brain was actually thicker in the super agers than it was in the 50 to 60-year-olds."
Normally, when people get old, the outer layers of their brains atrophy. But these super-agers showed no sign of that. They lived lives uninhibited by their mental ages. Many worked or volunteered in their communities. Some even wanted to keep the study secret because they didn't want their middle-aged friends to know how old they really were.
It would be great to be able to say what makes someone a good ager. Are they like that from the start? Does it have to do with personal experiences or choices? Because whatever the magic formula is, I want some of it. Unfortunately, the scientists don't know what makes super agers so special, or even what combination of factors might contribute to their healthier brains.
"I don't have any magic secrets today about if you eat 10 blueberries, then this will happen," said Rogalski. "But that's not really the intention of our study and I think it would be foolhardy to think that there is one magic ingredient to making this happen."
One thing is certain: getting old doesn't have to mean losing your mind.
"There's a lot of stigma around aging and it gets back to sort of our expectation as we age," said Rogalski. "And so I think super agers are really inspiring in that way to say, hey, perhaps if we all expected it a little bit better and we thought a bit better, maybe we could all inch towards that goal of having better memory as we age."