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August 25, 2013

Study seeks super agers’ secrets to brain health

CHICAGO — They’re called “super agers” — men and women who are in their 80s and 90s, but with brains and memories that seem far younger.

Researchers are looking at this rare group in the hope that they may find ways to help protect others from memory loss. And they’ve had some tantalizing findings: Imaging tests have found unusually low amounts of age-related plaques along with more brain mass related to attention and memory in these elite seniors.

“We’re living long but we’re not necessarily living well in our older years and so we hope that the SuperAging study can find factors that are modifiable and that we’ll be able to use those to help people live long and live well,” said study leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University’s cognitive neurology and Alzheimer’s disease center in Chicago.

The study is still seeking volunteers, but chances are you don’t qualify: Fewer than 10 percent of would-be participants have met study criteria.

“We’ve screened over 400 people at this point and only about 35 of them have been eligible for this study, so it really represents a rare portion of the population,” Rogalski said.

They include an octogenarian attorney, a 96-year-old retired neuroscientist, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a nightly martini.

To qualify, would-be participants have to undergo a battery of mental tests. Once enrolled, they undergo periodic imaging scans and other medical tests. They also must be willing to donate their brains after death.

The memory tests include lists of about 15 words. “Super agers can remember at least nine of them 30 minutes later, which is really impressive because often older adults in their 80s can only remember just a couple,” Rogalski said.

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