One of the challenges of aging is the loss of memory and the inability to recall past events. Although many seniors suffer from age-related memory loss, there is a group of “super agers” who are somehow able to maintain their youthful memory abilities. These older adults are of particular interest to a team of investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Their goal is to study what is significant about these adults’ ability to retain youthful thinking abilities and how it can help prevent dementia.
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, examined a group of 40 adults ages 60 to 80, and 41 middle-aged and young adults ages 18 to 35, to see how their brain circuits operate to support the retaining of memories. Brad Dickerson, MD, director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit in the MGH Department of Neurology and Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, MGH Department of Psychiatry, led the program.
Seventeen of the 40 selected seniors performed as well as adults four to five decades younger on memory tests. Twenty-three of the 40 elderly participants had normal results for their age group.
Along with the memory tests, imaging studies revealed more incredible details. The brains of super agers, specifically the cortex (the outer sheet of brain cells essential for most thinking abilities) among other parts, were comparable in size to those of young adults. Typically, an aging brain’s cortex and other parts tend to shrink over the lifespan.
The salience network of the brain (involved in identifying important information for specific situations) was also examined, and researchers found preserved thickness in several regions. “We believe that effective communications between these networks is very important for healthy cognitive aging,” says Alexandra Touroutoglou, neurology instructor at Harvard Medical School and co-senior author of the study.
Understanding which factors protect memory during aging could lead to significant advances in preventing and treating memory loss and dementia.