Senior adults with above average memory skills for their age—so-called “super agers”—have distinct differences in brain networks compared to their normal peers. NIA-funded researchers identified two brain network regions that remain robust in super agers and may enable them to perform on memory tests as well as middle-aged people and even young adults.
Brain atrophy, characterized by a loss in cortical thickness, is common with aging. Researchers led by Dr. Brad Dickerson at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, explored these brain volume differences in super agers, in part to discover whether cortical thickness in older people could predict memory performance. Their findings were published in the Sept. 14, 2016, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
In the study, 41 young volunteers (mean age mid-20s) and 40 older participants (mean age mid-to-late 60s) underwent memory testing and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs)
to measure brain volume. Based on the memory tests, researchers identified 17 super agers. Compared to their peers, the super agers showed little to no loss of cortical volume of brain regions within the default mode and salience networks that are important to memory storage, attention, encoding, and retrieval. Notably, in some super agers, these regions were so well preserved that they were indistinguishable from the young volunteers. The researchers also found that the hippocampus—a brain region important for learning and memory—was well preserved in the super agers.
More research is needed to understand better the factors that may lead to resilience against an age-related cognitive decline in people with above average memories as they age. Additional studies could also elucidate whether and how memory and cortical thickness in cognitive super agers change over time.