Some elderly people have memories which show no signs of slowing down
Given that muscle tone decreases and bones lose their strength as we age, most people tend to assume our memory must also decline with the advancing years. But there are elderly people whose memories show no signs of slowing up or becoming less accurate. Labelled ‘SuperAgers’, these older adults have been the subject of an investigation by researchers at Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, USA. The researchers tested the memories and cognitive abilities of a group of people aged over 80 and found that only 10% of those who considered themselves as having ‘outstanding memories’ actually met the criteria for the study. Those 12 people had memories that were just as accurate and quick as people up to 30 years younger. The researchers then did 3D MRI scans to see if these people’s brains looked any different from those of their peers.
They found that the so-called SuperAgers’ brains had a far thicker outer layer – the cortex – than their peers’. This part of the brain is responsible for memory, attention, thought, language and awareness – and it’s what’s people label ‘grey matter’ (so called because this part looks grey in preserved brains). Not only was this area thicker than in other similarly-aged individuals, it was of about the same thickness as it was in individuals 30 years younger. The thickness of a cortex is a good indicator of how many brain cells are there – and the thicker it is, the more cells, or neurons, there are. This part of the brain particularly tends to reduce in size as we get older.
Perhaps even more interesting was that the SuperAgers’ brains were even thicker in one particular area – the anterior cingulate – than in 50- to 65-year-olds. The anterior cingulate transfers neural signals between the left and right parts of the brain, controlling attention, decision-making, empathy and emotion, as well as some bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. “Attention supports memory,” says Dr Emily Rogalski, lead study author. “Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories.”
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