Why do their brains atrophy less?


People over 80 have exceptional memory and can remember everyday aspects and life experiences like someone 20 or 30 years younger. They are the so-called super-elders, who, according to Spanish researchers a few months ago, are more likely to have quicker movements and better mental health than other people their age. Although loss of memory or cognitive capacity is one of the main signs that we associate with aging, these people, the super-elderly, challenge this fact.

Now was just published in The Journal of Neuroscience a new work by the same scientists, the result of the Vallecas Project for early detection of Alzheimer’s, from the CIEN Foundation (dependent on the Carlos III Health Institute, and which has had the support and financing of the Reina Sofía Foundation), . The study helps to understand the functioning or particularities of the brain of these elderly people.

Adrian Cordellat

The most important conclusion, combined with a complementary study that was published last year on the same group of individuals, is that their brains are less atrophied than those of their peers. “We looked at the white matter of the super-elderly, and there is more preservation in it, it deteriorates less than in the control groups,” Marta Garo, first author of the study, researcher at the Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory of the , explains to La Vanguardia. Polytechnic of Madrid.

This white matter, as Garo explains, would be the wiring of our neurons, the roads that connect some regions of the brain with others, and which are very important in brain communication.

We look at the white matter of the elderly, and there is more preservation in it, it deteriorates less than in the control groups

Marta GaroFirst author of the study

Our brain is gray matter and white matter, and every activity we do involves both. Depending on the tasks, some regions or others are activated or important. There is nothing the brain does that involves both substances. “We tend to study the gray matter because the neuronal bodies are there, but the white matter is relevant, and its deterioration can explain some diseases. In this case, the study can give us clues, because the deterioration of white matter is related to vascular risk factors. Some risk factors are low in super elderly (hypertension, or blood glucose problems such as diabetes), but there are others such as diet or tobacco that have not been seen to differ between super elderly and the control group. This piece of the white matter maintained may be one more piece of the puzzle.”

The research was carried out with 119 octogenarians from Spain: 64 elderly people and 55 controls or older adults with normal memory abilities for their age. Participants underwent dozens of tests to evaluate their memory, motor and verbal skills; underwent brain scans and blood draws; and answered questions about their lifestyle and behaviors. “They undergo a neurological examination and a mobility test, and the neuropsychologist applies a memory and attention test,” explains Garo.

Adam Martin Skilton

The 'super-elderly', under study: how to reach 80 years of age with excellent memory and agility.

The ‘super-elders’ began to be studied in 2012.



Why super-elders?

Experts haven’t determined why a person becomes super-elderly or why their white matter atrophies less, although there were some differences in health and lifestyle behaviors between the two study groups.

Seniors had slightly better physical health indicators, including blood pressure, glucose metabolism, and better results on mobility tests. They also reported better mental health. “The super-elders, in addition, have more musical background, having studied it or having been in contact with it.”

The super-elders have more musical background, having studied it or having been in contact with it.

Marta GaroPrincipal investigator of the study

Mayte Rius

Head shot portrait close up of cute couple of old middle age people using computer pc outdoors sitting at a wooden table in the forest of mountain in nature with trees around them.

Surprisingly, there were no differences between the groups in terms of their diet, their professional background, or their alcohol and tobacco use. “In sleep, the super-elderly say that they have fewer sleep problems than the rest of the individuals, but it is a subjective measure, there is no difference regarding the number of hours that the two groups sleep. It is a difficult variable to interpret. Maybe they have more mental well-being, and they don’t give importance to a bad night.”

While there is no recipe for becoming a super-elder, scientists do know that, in general, eating healthy, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, and maintaining social connections are the determining factors for healthy brain aging. “Being super-elderly does not depend on a single factor. What we can intuit from the first study of lifestyle variables is that good physical and mental health, and cultivating hobbies such as music, helps. “Everything is important, there is no single factor.”

Being a super-elderly does not depend on a single factor. Good physical and mental health and cultivating hobbies such as music help

Marta GaroPrincipal investigator of the study

The pioneers in research on ‘super-elderly’

For more than a decade, the so-called super-elders have been a subject of study. The pioneering research in this population group, special for its good physical and mental conditions at its advanced age, was published in 2012. Theresa M. Harrison, from the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was the researcher main result of a work that established that “the cerebral cortex of super-elderly people was significantly thicker than that of their healthy peers of the same age and did not show atrophy compared to the healthy group aged 50 to 65 years.”

Emily Rogalski, a professor of neurology at the University of Chicago, and a member of the same team as Harrison, says that “if we constantly talk about what is wrong with aging, we are not capturing the full spectrum of what is happening in the adult population. greater”. Scientists believe that the average person’s memory peaks around age 30 and begins to decline thereafter. Superelders, on the other hand, follow a different trajectory, as their brains appear to age much more slowly.



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