Memory loss may not be an inevitable part of growing older, after all. For a subgroup of elderly adults called “super agers,” key brain regions resemble those of much younger people, according to a new study.  

This finding may help scientists better understand the causes of age-related memory loss, and why some adults aren't as prone to cognitive decline. They may also shed some light on what gives super agers their special powers—and how the rest of us might start to follow in their footsteps.

What does the research say?

Super agers have been described in previous studies as adults 80 and up with memories as sharp as those of middle-aged people. One 2015 study reported that brains of super agers are thicker in certain areas than normal brains, and also have fewer tangles (a type of protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease), and a large supply of neurons linked to social intelligence.

This new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is different. Researchers from Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) compared brain scans of a slightly younger group—half in the 60-to-80 age range and half in the 18-to-35 range. Among the older adults, 17 so-called super agers had performed as well on memory tests as adults four to five decades younger. 

“Previous research on super aging has compared people over age 85 to those who are middle-aged,” said co-author Alexandra Touroutoglou, PhD, an instructor of neurology at MGH, in a press release. “Our study is exciting because we focused on people around or just after typical retirement age—mostly in their 60s and 70s—and investigated those who could remember as well as people in their 20s."

When the researchers looked specifically at parts of the brain associated with learning and remembering new information, they found that they were larger in the super agers than in other older adults. And although these areas tend to shrink with age, they were as thick in the super agers, in some cases, as they were in the young adults. 

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Super agers' brains were also thicker in areas of the brain involved in identifying important information that needs attention for specific situations. The results showed that the size of these different brain regions—especially one specific area where they intersect and communicate with each other, known as the midcingulate cortex—was correlated with better memory.

What makes a super ager?

Scientists don’t yet know what it is that keeps super agers’ brains so young, but they have some suspicions based on the evidence so far. One “very good possibility” is regular exercise, says co-author Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, a research scientist in psychiatry at MGH.

“One of the key brain regions that appears to contribute to super-aging, the midcingulate cortex, is also a region that becomes thicker as people exercise,” Barrett told Health. Plus, she adds, “there is growing evidence that exercise is beneficial for memory and attention.”

The mid-cingulate cortex is also associated with feelings of difficulty; it’s activated when you are working hard at something and have to push through challenging parts. Therefore, Barrett says, a willingness to take on tasks that require sustained effort—such as learning a new language—may be a trait that super agers share.

The same goes for tenacity, which Barrett describes as “interpreting the unpleasant feelings that sometimes come from a lot of effort as a cue to invest more effort, rather than a cue to disengage because something is wrong.”

It’s also possible that super aging has to do with genetics, or with how the brain is wired during childhood, says Barrett, but those likely aren’t the only factors at play. “We can’t say for sure, but we suspect it is very related to lifestyle choices,” she says.

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Can we boost our super-aging potential?

Barrett does think researching super agers will yield specific recommendations at some point, but she cautions that for now she can only make “reasoned speculation.”

Based on those speculations, though, she has a few pieces of advice. “If I were making recommendations to my mother,” she says, here’s what she’d suggest:

  • Get regular exercise and enough sleep.
  • Challenge yourself regularly. “Do not avoid activities that might require an investment and a bit of tenacity,” she says. “I am not talking about little brain-teaser puzzles, for example, but rather something really challenging, like learning a new skill or language.”
  • Don't give up. “Remember that sometimes feeling unpleasant does not mean that something is wrong,” she says. “Sometimes it just means you have to try harder at what you are doing.”

Barrett and her colleagues hope to learn even more from super agers as they continue to study them. Not only do they aim to determine specific recommendations for healthy aging, but they also hope their research leads to advances in prevention and treatment of “normal” age-related memory loss, and possibly even different forms of dementia as well.