Superagers vs. average seniors: What sets their brains apart?

What would it take for you to keep your brain sharp well into your 80s and beyond? The remarkable phenomenon of “superagers”—seniors aged 80 and older whose memory rivals that of people 30 years younger—may hold the key to understanding how to stay mentally agile for a lifetime

As researchers dig deeper into the structural differences in superagers’ brains, intriguing patterns begin to emerge, giving us hope and direction for building a future where cognitive decline isn’t an inevitability.

The superager brain phenomenon

A recent study led by Marta Garo-Pascual and colleagues published in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds light on why superagers defy typical patterns of brain aging. 

Despite being in their 80s, their white matter—the brain’s communication network—remains more resilient than in their peers, even after five years of follow-up scans [1].

Unique brain structure insights

1. White matter microstructure

White matter microstructure includes the pathways that connect different brain regions. Using MRI scans, the study showed that superagers have better-preserved white matter structures, especially in the frontal lobes. 

Higher fractional anisotropy (FA), which indicates healthy white matter integrity, and lower mean diffusivity (MD), which suggests less degeneration, were both notable in superagers compared to typical older adults

This resistance to decline is most apparent in the anterior thalamic radiation and frontal fibers, which are crucial for memory, attention, and executive functioning [1]​​.

2. Global vs. regional brain health

While global measures like total white matter volume and lesion load didn’t differ significantly between superagers and typical seniors, the differences were stark when examining specific regions. 

The frontal tracts of superagers resisted degradation, providing more efficient memory retrieval. 

The anterior tracts, particularly vulnerable to aging, degrade slower in superagers, aligning with the “last-in-first-out” hypothesis, which suggests the most recently developed brain regions are the first to age [1].

3. Longitudinal resistance

The study followed participants over five years and found that superagers maintained youthful brain structure throughout the period. 

The FA levels of superagers decreased more slowly than those of typical older adults across nearly all white matter tracts, revealing their brains were significantly more resistant to aging [1].

Lifestyle choices and cognitive resilience

  • Physical activity: Exercise is essential for keeping your brain healthy and increasing neurogenesis (new neuron formation) and brain plasticity. Many superagers walk regularly, swim, or practice yoga.
  • Mental engagement: Superagers continuously challenge their minds through learning, puzzles, and hobbies.
  • Social connections: Staying socially active is another crucial factor. Superagers typically maintain strong social networks, regularly interacting with friends and family.
  • Healthy diet: Nutrient-rich foods, particularly those high in antioxidants and omega-3s, can reduce inflammation, promote neuroprotection, and maintain brain health.

Implications for aging research

Understanding how superagers retain such robust cognitive function offers valuable insights:

1. Dementia prevention 

Their ability to resist age-related brain degradation suggests potential preventive measures against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Future clinical interventions could focus on strengthening white matter integrity.

2. Vascular health connection

The study noted that superagers showed fewer vascular risk factors like hypertension and diabetes than average seniors [1]. This emphasizes the importance of controlling cardiovascular health to protect cognitive function.

3. Personalized cognitive health plans

Encouraging healthy lifestyle habits and early intervention could help typical older adults become superagers themselves.

Superagers demonstrate that cognitive decline isn’t inevitable. Their brains maintain better structural integrity, particularly in white matter tracts, than those of typical seniors. 

Their remarkable memory and attention abilities are a testament to their lifelong habits of physical activity, social engagement, and mental challenges. 

Whether through lifestyle modifications or groundbreaking clinical insights, research on superagers holds promise for redefining aging and helping more people retain mental sharpness long into their golden years. 

Start today by making choices that support your cognitive health—you could become a superager, too.

[1] https://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2024/04/18/JNEUROSCI.2059-23.2024

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