Why are some people called ‘superagers’ and why don’t they experience age-related memory loss?

Why are some people called 'superagers' and why don't they experience age-related memory loss?

Superagers: Unraveling the Secrets of Age-Defying Memory


Image source: Gerson Sobel, 93, of Rockville Center, New York swims his morning laps at the Freeport Recreation Center on February 6, 2004, in Freeport, New York. Al Bello/Getty Images

Remembering our life experiences vividly is a wonderful gift. For most people, memory tends to fade with age. However, there is a remarkable group of individuals known as superagers who defy this pattern. Superagers are older adults over the age of 80, whose memories remain as sharp as those of people 20 or 30 years younger. These individuals not only possess exceptional memory retention but also exhibit better overall brain health and physical well-being. Here, we delve into a recent study that sheds light on the unique characteristics and mechanisms behind superagers’ exceptional cognitive prowess.

A study, published in the journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity, explored the intriguing world of superagers. By comparing superagers with typical older adults, the researchers aimed to uncover the factors contributing to their remarkable memory function and overall vitality.

The study involved 64 superagers who were identified through a memory test taken in a previous study on Alzheimer’s disease. These superagers were then compared with 55 typical older adults, all aged 79.5 years or older. The findings were truly fascinating.

The researchers discovered that superagers not only had superior memory but also excelled in movement tests. The superagers performed better on the Timed Up and Go Test, which assesses mobility, and a finger tapping test that measures fine motor function. Interestingly, these results held true even when the superagers reported no significant difference in their levels of physical exercise compared to the control group of older adults.

What sets superagers apart from their peers, however, remains a mystery. This study suggests that superagers may engage in more physically demanding activities, such as gardening or stair climbing, which could contribute to their overall better brain health and cognitive abilities. Dr. Bryan Strange, a neuroscientist at the Technical University of Madrid and senior author of the study, highlights the numerous direct and indirect benefits of physical activity for cognitive abilities in old age. These benefits range from lower blood pressure and obesity levels to increased blood flow to the brain.

Furthermore, the study revealed another crucial element that potentially contributes to superagers’ exceptional memory function: gray matter. Superagers were found to possess more gray matter in key areas of the brain associated with memory. This discovery aligns with previous research that highlighted the significance of the medial temporal lobe and the anterior mid-cingulate cortex in superaging.

The medial temporal lobe, which plays a crucial role in memory processing, was found to have a greater volume of gray matter in superagers. Additionally, another study demonstrated that superagers displayed greater cortical thickness and better brain network functional connectivity in the anterior mid-cingulate cortex, a region associated with attention, memory, executive function, and motivation.

While the study highlights the physical and structural elements that contribute to superagers’ exceptional cognitive abilities, it also emphasizes the absence of significant differences in biomarkers or genetic risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases between superagers and typical older adults. This suggests the presence of other protective factors that help superagers resist age-related memory loss.

Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, emphasizes the importance of genetics in the aging process. He recalls meeting some children of superagers and noticing the evidence of a genetic basis for their slower biological time clock. This genetic advantage could explain why superagers also perform better on movement tests.

However, the secret to superagers’ longevity remains elusive. Dr. Olshansky points out that interrogating superagers about their secret to longevity is futile because they simply won the genetic lottery at birth. The field of aging science aims to unravel why some individuals age differently than others and if this process can be influenced. Dr. Olshansky suggests that the key lies in controlling the risk factors within our control, as even with all measures taken, we will inevitably grow old and eventually pass away.

In conclusion, superagers are a unique group of older adults whose memories defy the patterns of age-related decline. Their exceptional memory retention, combined with their better physical health and brain characteristics, provides valuable insights into the aging process. Further research is needed to unlock the precise mechanisms that contribute to superagers’ preservation of memory function deep into old age. By understanding these mechanisms, we may discover ways to enhance memory and cognitive abilities for individuals as they age. So, let us embrace our genetics and strive to lead healthy, fulfilling lives, cherishing each memory along the way.