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Why Do Some Seniors Have Memories as Sharp as People Nearly Half Their Age?

One 74-year-old grandmother is still so mentally sharp that she recently learned how to play chess, piano and pool. One 83-year-old retired doctor still edits books and runs several medical websites. An 89-year-old man is so up to date on pop culture that he can have a detailed discussion about Grammy-winning musician Chance the Rapper or legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra.

But why are these seniors’ brains still so active and their memories still so sharp?

Northwestern University researchers spent a year and a half trying to answer this question. They studied “SuperAgers,” people age 80 and older whose memories were just as good as people decades younger.

The study involved 24 SuperAgers and 12 cognitively and educationally average seniors who were the same age. To assess the brain health of these seniors, researchers used an MRI to track the cortex thickness of study participants over 18 months. The cortex is a thin layer that covers the outer part of the brain and controls memory, movement, language, attention and other critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Researchers discovered that both groups lost cortex volume during the study, but non-SuperAgers lost it twice as quickly as SuperAgers.

“Increasing age is often accompanied by ‘typical’ cognitive decline or, in some cases, more severe cognitive decline called dementia,” said Amanda Cook, one of the study’s authors. “SuperAgers suggest that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable.”

Researchers think genetic and environmental factors may contribute to sharp memory in SuperAgers. The average group in the study may have lost cortex volume at a faster rate over many decades than SuperAgers, which may explain the differences in brain volume between the two groups during the study even though they were the same age.

SuperAgers may be born with more brain volume or they may just continually challenge their brains and bodies by getting regular exercise, doing puzzles, reading, maintaining social connections or learning new skills — all of which is connected to slowing age-related memory decline.

Whatever the cause, researchers still haven’t come up with an answer. The Northwestern study’s lead author, Emily Rogalski, said more research needs to be done to identify the genetic factors that affect brain aging, which could be the basis for future medications and treatments that improve or maintain seniors’ memory. This line of research also could be a significant step forward in Alzheimer’s research and treating the disease, which affects an estimated 5.5. Million Americans.

In the meantime, seniors can do several things to keep their memory sharp, whether it’s volunteering, learning how to play a new instrument or staying physically active. As Nancy, the 74-year-old grandmother interviewed on the Today Show said: “The word boredom has never been allowed in my house.”

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