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Young Brains of Super-Agers

05 March, 2018

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle Report.

As we age, our ability to think and remember starts to deteriorate.

But not everyone.

FILE, In this Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 photo, an elderly lady is applauded as she celebrates after voting at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government at the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File)
FILE, In this Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 photo, an elderly lady is applauded as she celebrates after voting at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government at the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File)

Some of us have brains that age more slowly.

Enter the super-ager!

Super-agers are people over the age of 80 who have the brain structures and abilities of much younger people.

Eighty-seven-year-old Bill Gurolnick is a super-ager.

"What do I feel like? If I was to give a number, I probably feel like I'm about my early 70s..."

Scientists know that parts of the brain decrease in size with age. But in super-agers that process is much slower.

Emily Rogalski is a neuroscientist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago, Illinois. In a recent study, she showed that super-agers have young brains. The area of the brain responsible for attention and memory -- the cortex -- was shown to be thicker in super-agers.

"When we look at the cortex of their brain, we see that, on average, that it looks more like a 50-year-old brain than it looks like an average 80-year-old brain..."

Not only do super-agers have thicker cortexes, they have more von Economo neurons. These large brain cells appear to be involved with social-emotional communication. But their exact purpose is still a mystery.

Scientists writing for Smithsonian magazine also call them spindle neurons, and say they are "brain cells for socializing."

Several factors affect how our brains age

Scientists say super-agers have several things in common, including an active lifestyle. Many travel and play sports. They are often big readers. And they usually have healthy relationships and spend time with friends.

Super-agers also seem to have certain common personality traits. Rogalski says they are, for the most part, known for their optimism, resilience and perseverance.

Growing old, she adds, does not have to be depressing and sad.

"Perhaps, if we expected a bit better from ourselves, then we would understand that not all aging is 'doom and gloom..."

As lead investigator of the study, Rogalski jokingly said that super-agers do not grow on trees -- meaning they are special and few.

She says she wants to find out the reasons Gurolnick's mind is working so well and not aging as quickly as most.

Gurolnick's own father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in his 50s. Solving this mystery, Rogalski says, may help those who suffer from brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"We think if we can understand the factors contributing to super-aging, it may offer new hypotheses and new ways to explore the challenges in Alzheimer's disease."

Can we all be super-agers?

The science behind super-aging is a relatively new, but growing field. Scientists involved in the research offer this advice as we age: Stay active. Learn new things. Challenge yourself. Surround yourself with healthy relationships.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for Learning English with information from a report by George Putic for VOA News. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

deteriorate v. to become worse as time passes

optimism n. a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future : a feeling or belief that what you hope for will happen

resilience n. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

perseverance n. the quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult

doom and gloom phrase a general feeling that nothing is going to work out or be good

diagnose - v. to discover; to confirm through testing

contributing adj. to help to cause something to happen

challenge n. a difficult task or problem