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Studying SuperAgers could give insight into Alzheimer’s disease

Studying SuperAgers could give insight into Alzheimer’s disease
6th April 2017

The traditional approach to research into Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and age-related cognitive decline is to study people with brains that are underperforming. Now, a group of scientists in the US have taken a different vantage point from which to assess the human brain and try to understand what’s going on.

Researchers from Northwestern Medicine have spent 18 months studying the brains of SuperAgers. This demographic is a group of people who are over the age of 80, but still have the cognitive function of those who are much younger.

Donald Tenbrunsel, for example, is 89-years-old, but is a strong conversationalist and even talks to his grandchildren about subjects as up-to-date as Chance the Rapper! He said: "They don't know much about Frank Sinatra or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so I have to keep saying, 'Is the Chance the Rapper coming this week or is it Taylor Swift?'"

What the scientists found with Mr Tenbrunsel and his fellow SuperAgers is that their brains shrink much slower than those of other people the same age. This means they do not see the same memory loss as others and are resistant to conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

During the study, the normal participants lost volume in the cortex twice as quickly as those who are deemed SuperAgers. The results are to be presented at the 2017 Cognitive Aging Summit today (April 6th) and are expected to be of interest to anyone looking into the causes and cures of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

First author Amanda Cook, a clinical neuropsychology doctoral student, said: "Increasing age is often accompanied by 'typical' cognitive decline or, in some cases, more severe cognitive decline called dementia. SuperAgers suggest that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable."

A group of 24 SuperAgers and 12 people of the same age and educational backgrounds were involved in the research. Scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to monitor their brains. The annual per cent decline in thickness for the SuperAgers was 1.06, while for the control group it was 2.24.

Senior author Emily Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke of the significance of the study on Alzheimer’s research.

She said: "Sometimes it's useful to turn a complex problem on its head and look from a different vantage point. The SuperAging programme studies people at the opposite end of the spectrum: those with unexpectedly high memory performance for their age."

As there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and the condition continues to affect more and more people, different approaches to finding out about the disease are welcomed. The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that the number of people with it will reach two million by 2050 in the UK alone.