Most of us want to live as long as we can, but with a caveat — we want those years to be healthy. It's not just about quantity, it's about quality. Scientists are interested in the same questions (after all, they're human, too). But who are the best people to study when it comes to aging well?
Enter the "superagers," a group of people in their 80s who have been identified as having exceptionally strong memories. These lucky people have such good recalls that they're as strong in that area as people in their 20s. While many of us assume memory loss is just part of getting older, this may not be the case.
That's right: Memory loss isn't an inevitable part of aging.
Prior to these recent studies, it was generally believed that after age 50, the brain begins to shrink, losing neurons as it gets smaller over time. Those with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's experience brain atrophy at a faster rate. One of the reasons researchers are so interested in superagers is that not only could their findings help otherwise healthy people, but this special group could shine light on how brain disease works.
To better understand how brains age differently, in 2013 researchers at Northwestern University compared a small group of over-80s with people in their 50s. They found that about 1 in 10 people had memories that were similar to the younger group.
But a new study went further than the Northwestern one. Instead of comparing superagers to people 30 years younger, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital tested 40 people in their 60s and 70s and the same number of 18- to 32-year-olds. They did both cognitive tests and brain scans. They found that three parts of the brain which are key to memory — the anterior insula, orbitofrontal cortex and the hippocampus — appeared thicker and healthier than normal for people of their age.
The factors that make for thicker, healthier, more youthful brains are likely a combination of good genes and environment. Some key factors to aging well are under our control (for example, smoking and high cholesterol age the brain faster), but some are not. Researchers now want to tease out the differences between superagers and other senior citizens. Perhaps they eat certain foods, maintain a particular type of exercise program or do something else that helps their brains stay healthy into old age.
"We hope that there might be not just genetic factors that make people resilient but also things that people can do themselves, such as physical fitness and diet," lead researcher of the Mass. General study, Dr. Brad Dickenson, told the BBC. After all, if you knew certain activities or foods would help you remember well into your 80s, you'd probably do those things, right?
In addition, this information could prevent or reduce future suffering: "A better understanding of the underlying factors promoting this potential trajectory of unusually successful aging may provide insight for preventing age-related cognitive impairments or the more severe changes associated with Alzheimer's disease," as Dr. Theresa Harrison at Northwestern wrote in an earlier study.