September 28, 2023

Study finds more clues why ‘SuperAgers’ have better brains

In the largest observational study to date on “SuperAgers” — people in their 80s who have brains as sharp as those 30 years younger — researchers in Spain found key lifestyle differences that may contribute to this elderly’s razor-sharp mind. adults.

SuperAgers in the study had more gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement, and they scored higher on agility, balance and mobility tests than typical older adults — even though the two groups’ physical activity levels were the same.

“Although superagers report similar activity levels to typical older people, they may be doing more physically demanding activities, such as gardening or climbing stairs,” senior author Bryan Strange, director of the Laboratory of Clinical Neuroscience at Madrid University of Technology, said in a paper. declaration .

“From lower blood pressure and obesity to increased blood flow to the brain, there are many direct and indirect benefits of being physically active that can contribute to improved cognitive skills in old age.”

The study, published Thursday in the journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity, followed 64 SuperAgers and 55 cognitively normal older adults who were part of the Vallecas Project, a long-term Alzheimer’s disease research project in Madrid.

In a battery of tests, the Hispanic SuperAgers scored lower than typical older adults on depression and anxiety, the study found. Mental health problems such as depression are known risk factors for developing dementia.

SuperAgers also told researchers that they had been more active in middle age, were happy with the amount of sleep they got, and were independent in their day-to-day lives. Poor sleep is an important risk factor for cognitive decline.

“This study adds to what we already know — SuperAging isn’t just the ability to perform well on a cognitive test,” said Angela Roberts, an assistant professor of communication and computer science at Western University in London, Ontario, in an e-mail. -mail. . She was not involved in the investigation.

“It is associated with slower and less pronounced brain atrophy in regions critical to memory and language and possibly slower age-related decline in walking and mobility,” said Roberts, also a principal investigator of the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program, a clinical trial led by the Mesulam. Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The study is good news for people in their 30s and 40s who want to improve their health by getting more exercise, reducing stress and incorporating other healthy habits, said Dr Jo Robertson, National Screening and Testing Coordinator for the Australian Dementia Network at the University. of Melbourne, in an email.

“The key point here for middle-aged people is that they should enthusiastically adjust lifestyle factors known to have an impact – improving physical fitness, reducing cardiovascular risk, optimizing mental health and receiving appropriate care for mood disorders – to improve their health. long-term brain health,” said Robertson, who was also not involved in the study.

What is a SuperAger?

Most people’s brains shrink as they age. However, with SuperAgers, studies have shown that the cortex, which is responsible for thinking, decision-making and memory, remains much thicker and shrinks more slowly than people in their 50s and 60s.

To be a SuperAger, a term coined by the Northwestern SuperAging Program, a person must be over the age of 80 and undergo extensive cognitive testing. Acceptance into the study occurs if the person’s memory is as good or better than cognitively normal people in their 50s and 60s – only 10% of people who apply qualify.

“SuperAgers must have excellent episodic memory — the ability to recall everyday events and past personal experiences — but then SuperAgers just need to perform at least average on the other cognitive tests,” says cognitive neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, a professor of neuroscience. psychiatry and behavioral sciences. sciences at the Feinberg School, CNN told CNN in an earlier interview.

“It’s important to point out that when we compare the SuperAgers to the average agers, they have similar IQ levels, so the differences we see aren’t just due to intelligence,” says Rogalski, who developed the SuperAging project .

SuperAgers have similar properties, experts who study them say. They are generally positive. They challenge their brain every day by reading or learning something new. Many continue to work into their eighties.

SuperAgers are also social butterflies, surrounded by family and friends, and often volunteer in the community. And as the current study found, they also stay physically active.

More gray matter in certain parts of the brain

All participants in the Spanish study underwent brain scans, blood tests and other lifestyle and cognitive assessments when they entered the study and were reassessed annually for four years.

Brain scans showed that SuperAgers had a greater volume of gray matter than typical older adults in brain regions responsible for cognitive functioning, spatial memory and general memory. In addition, some of the most impressive changes in gray matter volume were in brain regions related to motor activity or movement, as well as memory.

Interestingly, the study found that SuperAgers are just as likely to have the same levels of APOE genes — including APOE4, a red flag risk for Alzheimer’s disease — as normally aging adults. However, that finding is not new, experts say.

“SuperAgers perform better on a range of measures – memory, physical fitness, speed and mental health – careless of the levels of Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers in the blood,” said Robertson, senior clinical neuropsychologist at Melbourne Health in Australia.

Previous research has found a genetic predisposition to the ability to keep the mind sharp into old age. Research of donated brains from SuperAgers has found larger, healthier cells in the entorhinal cortex – one of the first brain regions to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

The key to a brain that ages well probably lies in good lifestyle choices and genetics, experts say, but more research is needed.  - Image source/Getty Images/FILE

The key to a brain that ages well probably lies in good lifestyle choices and genetics, experts say, but more research is needed. – Image source/Getty Images/FILE

Brains of SuperAgers also had many more von Economo neurons, a rare type of brain cell believed to allow rapid communication between the brains. So far, the corkscrew-like von Economo neuron has only been found in humans, great apes, elephants, whales, dolphins and songbirds.

“The story here isn’t just that (SuperAgers) have a lower risk of developing dementia,” Roberts said. Instead, she said, they may have added protective factors — genetic or lifestyle or even a positive emotional outlook — that help protect them against these risk factors.

“This is an important reason to study SuperAgers — because they can help us uncover protective mechanisms that act on known risk factors for dementia … to reduce or minimize the risk of age-related cognitive decline and brain changes,” Roberts said.

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