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The Secret to Staying Young and Avoiding Dementia

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenMay 3, 2012

Why Some 80 Somethings Seem Much Younger

We all know there is not really a fountain of youth. Sure, Indiana Jones may argue otherwise, but Harrison Ford continues to age. So why are some people able to retain their cognitive abilities while others suffer from memory loss and dementia?

There are many puzzles to this ‘brainquest’, but some Northwestern University scientists discuss why some 80-plus-year-old seniors are as sharp as people 30 years their junior: “As you age, things change,” says Emily J. Rogalski, an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your memory gets worse, your muscles decline. What we noticed is that sometimes people don’t fit this criteria. They are over 80 and still cognitively sharp.” Rogalski and other researchers at Feinberg School of Medicine worked with a group of extraordinary elderly men and women they refer to as “SuperAgers.” To be considered a “SuperAger” a senior must stand out among a group of healthy agers as people that “don’t seem afflicted in the normal way by aging.”

The approach to this study is the opposite way of looking at Alzheimer’s. Rogalski notes, “Instead of what’s going wrong with the brain, what’s going right?” These types of findings can help determine what may prevent memory loss and dementia.

Finding the Senior Living “SuperAger” Candidates

The researchers set the bar high on determining true representations of aging gracefully. With over 200 people interested in participating in the study, only twenty percent made it through the initial screen. The people who made it through showed superior memory abilities, IQ and executive function. The curious finding? The SuperAgers in the group came from a variety of backgrounds:

“Some have less than a high school education. We have people who have medical degrees,” Rogalski comments. “We have people at 80 who are going to the gym five days a week and leading exercise classes and people who still smoke a pack a day and have for 30 years.”

The Relation Between Health, Aging, Genetics and Active Senior Lifestyles

One similarity between the SuperAgers was that MRIs revealed that their brains weren’t shrinking the way peoples’ brains normally shrink with age. Whether active, healthy lifestyles or genetics is believed to be the reason these SuperAgers have maintained their brains is unclear, as the research is ongoing. In fact, the SuperAgers agreed to donate their brains to science after they die. According to Rogalski, “The SuperAgers commit to brain donation so at the time of death we can see if (the brain) is resistant to age-related pathology.”

Something to take away? We don’t have any definite findings yet. But since the brain is a muscle, it’s always a good idea to exercise our minds through games, such as Scrabble, or insightful reading. Good conversation and fun don’t hurt, either. And why not maintain an active lifestyle? While we’re all waiting to find out the truth about keeping our brains young, a little effort on our part is a good start. And we’re sure Harrison Ford agrees.

Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen
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