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How some older people manage to retain their memory and ability to think

A new study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital has revealed why some older people are able to retain their ability to think and recall memories. By using imaging techniques, the researchers were able to see that so-called ‘super-agers’ had brains which exhibited youthful characteristics normally seen in people in their twenties.

While some memory loss is considered to be inevitable as we age, this new research shows how some of us manage to avoid that fate. This particular study aimed to find out why this happens by examining a group of older adults who performed extremely well in memory tests. In doing so, they discovered that the significant areas of their brains that are involved in such tasks resembled those of much younger people.

This is the first study of its kind and aims to understand more about how some older people are able to retain their ability to think as they did when they were younger and to find out more about the brain circuits involved in this process.

The study involved one group of 40 participants aged between 60 and 80 years of age, 17 of whom had secured results in memory tests which were more in keeping with people forty or fifty years younger, together with a second group aged between 18 and 35. From the images taken of the ‘super-agers’ brains, it was seen that the regions normally associated with memory and thinking ability were comparable in size to those of young adults. In particular, the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex were thicker as compared to these areas in the brains of the other older adults. The investigators were also surprised to see that in some cases, there was no difference at all in the thickness of these areas when compared to the brains of young people.

The researchers also concentrated their examination on a group of regions which are involved in the identification of important information. Known as the salience network, this area was also found to be thicker among the super-agers.

As a result of their research, the team have been able to show that super-agers not only had no shrinkage in these important brain networks, but that the size of these regions was directly related to their ability to remember. Furthermore, the team believe that it’s the effectiveness of the communication between these networks which allow the brain to stay cognitively healthy.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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