It turns out that memory loss associated with aging may not be as inevitable as traditionally thought. In fact, new research indicates that many older adults actually exhibit memory performance equivalent to that of much younger individuals, all thanks to the health of one particular region of the brain.
These older adults, dubbed ‘super agers,’ may one day help us to make major advances in understanding not only what drives memory loss, but also other forms of cognitive decline—such as dementia and other diseases.
The New Research
Performed by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital, and recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, this new research study was distinct in the age range that it targeted. As a co-senior author on the study, Dr. Alexandra Touroutoglou, explained, “previous research on suger aging has compared people over age 85 to those who are middle aged, [but] our study is exciting because we focused on people around or just after retirement age.” More specifically, the researchers enrolled adults between the ages of 60 to 80 years old and separated them into two different groups—17 of whom performed as well in memory tests as adults four to five decades younger and 23 who demonstrated normal results for their age group.
These two groups were then evaluated against a group of 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve as the baseline for memory abilities among younger people. Finally, the researchers performed imaging studies in order to evaluate the difference in the brains between the two groups of older adults.
What Are Super Agers?
Fascinatingly, the imaging studies revealed significant differences between the normal older adults and the super agers, across several different regions of the brain. Among the differences noted, the researchers found that the cortex—the outermost layer of brain cells that is critical in many thinking abilities—of the super agers was comparable in size to those of the younger adults. More specifically, both the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex were thicker among the super agers than the normal older adults.
In addition, the researchers evaluated a group of regions in the brain known as the salience network, another important region for the purposes of memory and communication among different brain networks. Not only did they find that this part of the brain was larger among the super agers, but that the size of this region was correlated with memory ability. Therefore, in summary, super agers are older adults who exhibit both superior memory performance as compared to normal people in their age group, as well as physically more robust regions of the brain.
How to Improve Your Cognitive Function
Clearly, this new study has unveiled fascinating physical findings that distinguish super agers from other older adults. However, the study leaves a number of new, unanswered questions to be explored regarding the reasons for this discrepancy, and ultimately serves as a point from which to conduct further tests.
So, while our understanding of this phenomenon remains far from complete, there are several things that we do know support maintaining a better memory.
There are many different foods, vitamins, supplements, and activities that can help to improve your memory, as well as sleeping techniques thought to ward off memory problems. For example, vitamin B12 has been shown to prevent the brain shrinkage that is common with age. Other techniques, meditation, sex, and reducing stress, have been directly linked to the preservation of the prefrontal cortex.
Until science unlocks the mystery of super agers further, and possibly ways to directly increase brain size, these types of tools and techniques are probably your best bet for maintaining sound memory function into advanced age.
Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.