Posted on 24 July 2023
Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.
Why is this research important: As we get older, our memories inevitably decline. However, there’s a small group of people called ‘superagers’ who appear to be remarkably resistant to this decline, and commonly maintain memory abilities comparable to people 20 or even 30 years younger than them. How do they do it, and what can we learn from them about maintaining our own memory function in old age? Those are the questions that this article published in the Lancet aims to answer.
What did the researchers do: The researchers analysed data from an existing study (the Vallecas Project longitudinal cohort) and identified superagers based on various memory tests. A superager was defined as someone aged 79.5 or older who scored higher than the mean (average) for a 50-56 year-old.
Using these criteria, they identified 64 superagers and 55 typical older adults, all with a mean (average) age of around 82. They compared the brain structure, blood biomarkers, and lifestyle factors of superagers and typical older adults using MRI scans, blood tests, and questionnaires. They also followed them for up to six years to track changes in their brain and memory over time.
Key takeaway(s) from this research: The researchers found that superagers had larger and less atrophied brain regions involved in memory, such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the basal forebrain, than typical older adults. These regions underwent slower rates of atrophy in superagers during follow up. Superagers also had higher grey matter volume in the motor thalamus, a part of the brain that controls movement.
Interestingly, there were similar concentrations of dementia blood biomarkers between superagers and the average population. This could suggest that superagers do not undergo less dementia pathology, but are more resistant to the damage it causes.
The researchers also identified some lifestyle and clinical factors that distinguished superagers from typical older adults. In particular, superagers had better mental health and faster ‘movement speed’ (faster gait and finger tapping speed) when compared to average people who reported doing the same amount of exercise. However, exercise isn’t the only form of physical activity, so it’s quite possible that superagers were indeed more physically active than average for their age.
How does this research apply to you: Interpreting this kind of research always leads to a chicken and egg problem: are superagers resistant to brain ageing because of their healthier lifestyles, or do genetically slower rates of ageing allow them to maintain better physical and mental health for longer? It’s almost certainly a bit of both.
This study suggests that superagers do not necessarily have lower levels of dementia biomarkers than the rest of us. Though genetics may play a role, this could also be explained by the concept of cognitive reserve – the idea that people with more brain connections to begin with can afford to lose more of those connections before it starts to affect their cognition in a detectable way. In other words, building the healthiest brain possible will make you more resistant to neurodegenerative diseases, even if it doesn’t actually slow them down.
Based on this and other research, you can build a healthier brain through the following practices:
Brain structure and phenotypic profile of superagers compared with age-matched older adults: a longitudinal analysis from the Vallecas Project https://doi.org/10.1016/S2666-7568(23)00079-X
Title image by Freepik