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'Super Agers' Could Be Key To Preventing Memory Loss: Researchers

Image: 'Super Agers' Could Be Key To Preventing Memory Loss: Researchers Don Tenbrunsel, 85, a “super ager” participating in a Northwestern University study.

By Robin Farmer   |   Friday, 23 Aug 2013 01:08 PM

Dubbed "super agers," an elite group of seniors in their 80s and 90s with exceptional brains and memories may help researchers protect others from memory loss.

Imaging tests of this rare group show far lower amounts of age-related plaques and more brain mass, The Associated Press reported. These seniors’ brains and memories seem far younger. Even the part of their brain that helps attention is bigger than the same area in many 50- and 60-year-olds.

A new study is underway to help researchers understand what makes these seniors young inside and able to stay so sharp.

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"We're living long but we're not necessarily living well in our older years and so we hope that the SuperAging study can find factors that are modifiable and that we'll be able to use those to help people live long and live well," study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University's cognitive neurology and Alzheimer's disease center in Chicago, told the AP.

It’s been widely believed "that there was nowhere to go but down as we aged," she told CBS News. "So we're kind of trying to shift our thinking a little bit and say, 'Maybe it's possible to maintain optimal memory as we age. Maybe there's a different trajectory.'"

Rogalski and other researchers have discovered that a part of the brain called the cortex, which is responsible for functions like thinking, attention, and memory, is thicker in super agers.

"If you think of the bark of the tree," she said, "that's kind of like the cortex. the thicker the better. And the cortex of the brain is where the cells live. So when we mention the thickness of the cortex, we're getting a measure of the health of the brain. The thicker, the better," she told CBS News.

The study is looking for volunteers to help unravel the mystery of aging. But individuals who qualify are in short supply.

"We've screened over 400 people at this point and only about 35 of them have been eligible for this study, so it really represents a rare portion of the population," Rogalski told the AP.

Eligible participants must do a battery of mental tests, undergo periodic imaging scans, and be willing to donate their brain after death.

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