A study called “Rates of Cortical Atrophy in Adults 80 Years and Older with Superior vs. Average Episodic Memory” was published in JAMA on April 4, 2017, and senior author, Emily Rogalski, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Evanston, Illinois, presented the findings of her team’s study at the 2017 Cognitive Aging Summit in Bethesda, Maryland on April 6, 2017.
The study showed that SuperAgers, a term that refers to people older than 80 year who have an episodic memory that is at least as good as that of average middle-aged adults, lose brain volume more slowly than their peers who are aging normally, and this slower rate of decreasing brain volume seems to protect them from dementia.
Earlier research into the brains of SuperAgers showed that they have a thicker brain cortex than most people their age, but it wasn’t clear whether that was because they had a larger brain to begin with or whether they experienced slower rates of decline in brain mass. Rogalski and her team at Northwestern University were able to show evidence that SuperAgers lost less brain volume than normally aging adults.
Most people experience some cognitive decline as they age. But for some reason, SuperAgers don’t fit into that mold. The study showed that SuperAgers lost only 1.06 percent of their brain volume per year, while normally aging adults lost 2.24 percent annually. Their study lasted 18 months, over which time they followed 24 SuperAgers and 12 cognitively average elderly adults. Most of the SuperAgers were white women with a mean age of 83.3 at the beginning of the study. The mean age of the cognitively average group was 83.4. All 36 participants were tested at the beginning of the study and 18 months later.
Rogalski said that their findings suggest “SuperAgers are resistant to the normal rate of decline” that they see in average elderly people, and they believe it may be helpful in the search for an effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s to seek out the biological factors or bodily processes that are protecting people from brain loss and resulting dementia. Knowing what protects some people could provide clues in how to help protect others.
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