Elderly “superheroes”… What is the secret of their sharp memory in the eighties?
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – Despite volunteering, working out at the gym several days a week, spending time with friends and family, reading all kinds of books and doing daily crossword puzzles, 85-year-old Carol Siegler generally seems monotonous.
“I’m bored,” said Siegler, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Palatine in the US. “I feel like a Corvette being used as a shopping cart,” she added.
Siegler is considered a cognitive “SuperAger,” with a brain as powerful as people 20 to 30 years younger.
She is part of an elite cohort involved in the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program, which has been studying older adults with excellent memory for 14 years.
The program is part of the Misolam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Super old men… Who are they?
To become super-elderly, a term coined by Northwestern University researchers, an individual must be over 80 years old and undergo extensive cognitive testing.
A person was accepted into the study only if their memory was at the cognitive level of normal people in their fifties and sixties, or more.
“Super-elderly people must have exceptional episodic memory, the ability to remember everyday events and past personal experiences,” said Emily Rogalski, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg College of Medicine. At least average on other cognitive tests.
“It’s important to note that when we compare super-seniors to middle-aged people, they have similar levels of intelligence, so the differences we see are not just intelligence,” Rogalski said.
Once accepted, these individuals undergo 3D brain scans, cognitive tests, and brain scans that are repeated approximately every year.
Data analysis over the years has produced impressive results.
larger nerve cells
Most people’s brains shrink as they age.
But when it comes to super-old people, studies have shown that the cortex, the part responsible for thinking, decision-making and memory, remains thicker and shrinks more slowly compared to people in their 50s and 60s.
Superstar brains, which participants typically donate to a research program after death, have larger, healthier cells in the entorhinal cortex. It’s “one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease,” Northwestern assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Tamar Geffen said by email.
Comparing the brains of deceased superstars with cognitively normal brains of older, younger individuals and people diagnosed early with Alzheimer’s disease is important, said Giffin, lead author of the November study.
The study also found that the brains of older superstars had three times fewer tau synapses, or abnormal protein formations within neurons, than brains with healthy cognitive components.
Tau knots are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
“We think that larger neurons in the entorhinal cortex indicate that they are more structurally intact and may be able to tolerate tau neurofibrillary tangle formation,” Geffen said.
Geffen also found that the brains of the super-elderly had more von economou cells, a rare type of brain cell previously found in humans, apes, elephants, whales, dolphins and songbirds.
Von economou cells are thought to enable rapid communication through the brain, and another theory is that these neurons give humans and great apes an intuitive edge in social situations.
Does the environment play any role?
Super seniors have similar traits, according to Rogalski, who is also co-director of the Missolam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease in Feinberg.
These people stay physically active and tend to be positive.
These people challenge their brains, read or learn something new every day, and many of them continue to work well into their eighties, and enjoy social connections with family members and friends.
Looking back on his life, Siegler recognizes many of the traits of superstars. As a girl during the Great Depression, Siegler taught herself to spell, play the piano and read Hebrew while sitting on her grandfather’s knee while checking his weekly Yiddish newspaper.
Siegler graduated from high school at 16, immediately went to college and earned her pilot’s license at 23.
Later, Sigler created a family business in her basement that grew to 100 employees.
At the age of 82, Siegler won the American Crossword Contest for her age group, which she said she entered “as a joke.”