Health and Healthcare Systems

Why do 'super-ager' octogenarians have such sharp memories?

Elderly couple on a bench.

Super-agers have a unique brain structure that resembles that of younger adults. Image: Unsplash/James Hose Jr

David Elliott
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Why can so-called super-agers recall personal experiences with the sharpness of people 30 years younger.
  • Scientists have studied the brain’s grey and white matter to find out.
  • Planning for our ageing societies will require a new framework to help people lead equitable and sustainable lives, according to a new World Economic Forum report.

Imagine a unique group of people in their ninth decade alive who have the memory ability of people 30 years younger. That's the case for a select group of octogenarians known as ‘super-agers’.

What’s going on in these individuals’ brains and what it might tell us about age-related cognitive decline has been intriguing scientists for the past decade. Now a new study has shone more light on the phenomenon.

So what is it that makes super-agers different, and what does the latest research say about them?

Have you read?

What is a super-ager?

While there is no concrete definition of the term, previous research into super-agers has shown that they retain the ability to recall personal experiences – known as episodic memory – with the same accuracy as their middle-aged peers.

Super-agers also seem to have a unique brain structure that resembles that of younger adults.

An early study on the topic found super-agers’ grey matter – which is responsible for processing information and forming memories – to be “significantly thicker” than other healthy people of their age.

In a more recent study published in The Lancet, researchers looked at the grey matter of a group of 64 super-agers and 55 people with normal memory function for their age in Madrid, Spain.

They too found that super-agers appeared to have more grey matter in key regions linked to memory, and that the overall level of grey matter in these areas degenerated more slowly over five years than in typical older adults.

Alongside, their findings also suggested that super-agers move more quickly and have better mental health than typical older adults.

Neuroanatomical differences between superagers (n=64) and age-matched typical older adults (n=55)
Studies into super-agers have analyzed the volume of grey matter in participants’ brains. Image: The Lancet

Super-agers and white matter

Now, with a companion study of the same 64 super-agers in Madrid, researchers think they may have found further answers in the brain’s white matter.

This is the brain’s complex wiring system – a network of nerve fibres that connect regions of grey matter in the brain to help us do things like focus, learn and solve problems.

As we age, white matter goes through changes in its volume and microstructure, and white matter loss with ageing is associated with a decline in cognitive performance.

Over the course of five years, the researchers in Madrid studied the white matter of the super-agers and the 55 older adults with typical memory abilities for their age. The participants took memory and motor skills tests and were quizzed about their lifestyles.

The researchers, publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that the super-agers had less brain atrophy – the loss of neurones and the connections between them – than would be expected for their age.

The better overall preservation of white matter microstructure the super-agers displayed suggests a resistance to age-related changes as a likely reason for the retention of memory function, the report says.

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Ageing societies and the longevity economy

The researchers say the existence of super-agers provides “evidence that cognitive decline is not inevitable” and that they hope studying the phenomenon will provide insights into how it is possible to protect against age-related memory loss.

Such studies will become ever-more important as societies globally get older. By 2050, there are expected to be more than 2 billion people aged 60 and above, with Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan expected to have the highest share of people aged 65 and older by the same year. Across the world, this will place increasing pressure on economies and healthcare systems.

The world's oldest populations
By 2050, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan are expected to have the highest share of people aged 65 and older. Image: Statista

Planning for this demographic shift will require a new framework and mindset to guarantee people can lead resilient, equitable and sustainable lives, according to the World Economic Forum report Longevity Economy Principles: The Foundation for a Financially Resilient Future.

It proposes a new way of thinking that includes focusing on longevity literacy – where businesses, government and individuals rethink their approach to planning for later life – so that people can prioritize their health, purpose and financial resilience as they live longer lives.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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