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Some senior citizens have the mental ability of healthy people many years younger

Despite advanced age, a group of senior citizens 80 and older called "SuperAgers" have the mental ability of healthy people many years younger. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience says their brains are as different from those of peers as their cognitive ability.

"New research discovers the brains of some 80+-year-old individuals look 30 years younger, a finding that is associated with higher social intelligence and 90 percent fewer tangles linked to Alzheimer's," wrote Rick Nauert of PsychCentral. He said the study "is the first to quantify brain differences of SuperAgers and normal older people."

In background information, the researchers said that "understanding their unique 'brain signature' will enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source and may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging persons as well as treat dementia."

By using MRI imaging on SuperAger brains after the subjects died and comparing them to the brains of both younger people and of age-matched peers who were not cognitively gifted in old age, the researchers identified several physical features of SuperAger brains. The cortex has a thicker region, there are fewer tangles — tangles are a marker of Alzheimer's disease — and the brains contained a "whopping supply" of a neuron called von Economo that is linked to greater social intelligence, according to researchers.

"The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age," said study senior author and research professor Changiz Geula in a written statement. "It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offer protection."

The researchers hope that identifying why SuperAgers have such unusual cognitive capacity will help the so-called normal elderly hold onto their cognitive capability and ward off dementias or at least inform therapies to treat them, according to lead author Tamar Gefen, a clinical neuropsychology doctor candidate.

The researchers believe that "the von Economo neurons play a critical role in the rapid transmission of behaviorally relevant information related to social interactions, which is how they may relate to better memory capacity," Geula said.

Whales, elephants, dolphins, higher apes and humans all have that type of neuron.

Northwestern first identified the class of "cognitively elite" individuals — those 80 and older with super-charged memories and brain power as good or better than people 30 years their junior — in 2007, according to Futurity.org. The work was done by scientists at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center in the Feinberg School of Medicine.

The Northwestern team also explored the phenomenon of SuperAgers in an earlier study published by the National Institutes of Health in 2013.

The new research was funded by National Institute on Aging grants, the Davee Foundation and others.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco