As Charles de Gaulle once said, ‘Old age is a shipwreck’. But with all due respect to the general, not everyone seems to fall victim to this curse. Old age doesn’t always have to mean you end up going senile. The members of this exclusive club made up of the older generation – eighty-year-olds, ninety-year-olds and even hundred-year-old people are refusing to submit to the curses of time and maintain, despite their advanced years, their surprising cognitive abilities which rival those of their younger peers.
In order to keep their brains in such good working and mental condition, these ‘super-agers’ have a secret. More than one in fact. Emily Rogalski, a professor at Northwestern University near Chicago in the United States, has managed to unveil some of these secrets which were then revealed during the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, which was held in Austin, Texas in 2018.
A larger number of a specific neuron
The first unusual thing that was observed in these ‘super-agers’ was found in the brain. During the autopsy of ten people belonging to this group, Emily Rogalski made an unexpected discovery. In the brains of these ‘super-agers’, there was a larger number of a certain type of neuron than is more commonly found in younger people. This neuron is called the Von Economo neuron, also known as the spindle neuron, and is a very specific type of brain cell known for its elongated and slender shape, but it is also are rather rare to find in the human brain.
In fact, they are only found in three regions of the brain including the anterior cingulate cortex in particular, which is the area that is important for our attention span and working memory, which at the same time is important for temporary memory storage and manipulation. There is no doubt that the main reason for this is the surprising cognitive youth of these ‘super-agers’.
As Emily Rogalski notes, this area was ‘thicker in super agers than on average 50- and 60- year olds.’
A protein that saves certain people from old age
Another secret of these elders who are as quick-witted as they were in their twenties, also lies in their brains. Not in their cells, but rather in the form of a particular protein known as amyloid in the brain. When this protein clusters around brain cells, it forms plaques which are likely to cause cognitive decline and even appears to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
The brains of these ‘super-agers’ contain this harmful protein as well, but against all expectations, the presence of amyloid wasn’t detrimental to the cognitive abilities of their memory skills. An unexpected discovery will allow researchers to get a better understanding of how some people manage to deal with senile dementia and resist Alzheimer’s disease.
Some ‘super-agers’ are stronger than others
In order to achieve this brain clarity at such an advanced age, you might think that it is essential to lead a healthy life. And yet, although some common human vices do lead to premature decline, for some of the luckier among us, drinking or smoking doesn’t necessarily prevent you from living longer or being mentally healthier.
‘We ask them why is it that you think you are a super ager, how did you get here and there are a couple of funny ladies and they will say, well it’s because I have a martini with my friends every day at 5 o clock,’ explains Emily Rogalski.
Staying in shape doesn’t necessarily guarantee a long life either. For elderly people, it seems a low body mass index actually increases the risks of premature death. Therefore, to live to a more advanced age, it seems it is actually better to have a hearty appetite and a few additional fat stores.
Scientists nevertheless mitigate their observations. Although they are harmless for some people, this excess weight won’t save everyone. As Emily Rogalski commented, this doesn’t mean that people should take up bad habits in order to live longer, noting that some people might have a genetic makeup that allows them to tolerate smoking and drinking better than others.
Whatever it is, ‘super-agers’ could provide us with the keys to a happy old age in full possession of our cognitive faculties.
‘We are getting quite good at extending our lifespan, but our health span isn’t keeping up and what the super-agers have is more of a balance between those two, they are living longer and living well,’ concludes Emily Rogalski. It seems nature has already gifted some lucky people with the unusual brain characteristics that save the cognitive shipwreck associated with old age.