As you age, you may fear becoming forgetful and in the process, losing your identity. Losing mental capacity is often seen as an unfortunate, but inevitable part of aging. However, new research has shown that some elderly individuals between the ages of 70 and 80 have memories and functioning capacities that more closely resemble those that are 20-30 years younger. These individuals have been deemed “SuperAgers,” and their brains have three characteristics that contribute to their slowed aging process. A recent study in the Journal of Neurology outlines these three characteristics.
The anterior cingulate cortex is a portion of the brain that controls motivation, perseverance, executive control, motor function, and conflict resolution. Essentially, this part of the brain handles how a person interacts with others, making it fundamental for social functions. The study showed that SuperAgers, had thicker anterior cingulate cortexes, which closely resembled the same portion of the brain in healthy 50-60 year olds. Because this portion of the brain is so closely related to social function, these individuals were more likely to remain social and active well into their senior years, which is thought to be a component in their slowed aging.
Neurofibrillary brain tangles, typically referred to as simply tangles, are twisted fibers comprised of the tau protein. These fibers constrict—and kill—neurons, which leads to diminished mental capacity as we age. In the study, SuperAgers showed 87% less tangles, which in turn led to increased memory function in these individuals.
More Von Economo Neurons
Von Economo neurons control social interaction and rapid decision making. These neurons are seen in high levels in intelligent species, such as whales, dolphins, and people. As we age, the number of these neurons typically decrease drastically. However, SuperAgers have a much higher level of these neurons than their peers, which in turn leads to increased memory and independence well into their senior years.
Surprisingly, two out of the three areas of the brain that control memory in older individuals relate to social function. While researchers are still unsure whether these attributes of the brain are genetic or environmental, all of the SuperAgers reported being socially and mentally active in their communities. It is possible that by keeping your brain active and maintaining a healthy social life, you can slow the process of aging, allowing you to keep your brain functioning much longer than you might expect. So, choose a new hobby or volunteer in the community—your brain will thank you!