Secrets of ‘SuperAgers’ with Great Memories into Their 80s
Editor’s note: Sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide will help you ease into a healthy routine, with expert support.
Despite volunteering and working out at the gym several days each week, spending time with friends and family, reading every possible book and doing daily crossword puzzles, 85-year-old Carol Siegler is restless.
“I’m bored. I feel like a Corvette being used as a grocery cart,” said Siegler, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Palatine.
Siegler is a cognitive “SuperAger,” possessing the brains of people 20 to 30 years younger. She is part of an elite group enrolled in Northwestern SuperAging Research Program, who has been studying elderly people with excellent memory for 14 years. The program is part of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“I auditioned twice for ‘Jeopardy!’ and did well enough to be invited to the live auditions. Then Covid hit,” Siegler said.
“Who knows how well I would do,” she added with a laugh. “What I told my children and anyone who asked me: ‘I may know a lot about Beethoven and Liszt, but I know very little about Beyoncé and Lizzo.'”
To be a SuperAger, a term coined by Northwestern researchers, a person must be over 80 and undergo extensive cognitive testing. Acceptance into the study only occurs if a person’s memory is as good as or better than cognitively normal people in their 50s and 60s.
“SuperAgers must have extraordinary episodic memory — the ability to recall everyday events and past personal experiences — but then SuperAgers only need to score at least average on other cognitive tests,” said cognitive neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
Only about 10% of people who apply for the program meet these criteria, said Rogalski, who developed the SuperAger project.
“It’s important to point out that when we compare SuperAgers to average people, they have similar IQ levels, so the differences we see are not just due to intelligence,” she said.
Once accepted, colorful 3D brain scans are performed, and cognitive testing and brain scans are repeated every year or so. Analyzing the data over the years has produced fascinating results.
Most people’s brains shrink as they age. In SuperAgers, however, studies they showed the cortex, responsible for thinking, decision-making and memory, it remains much thicker and decreases more slowly than in people in their 50s and 60s.
SuperAger brains, which participants typically donate to a research program after death, also have larger, healthier cells in the entorhinal cortex. It is “one of the first areas of the brain to be ‘hit’ by Alzheimer’s disease,” Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, said in an email.
The entorhinal cortex has direct connections with another key memory center, the hippocampus, and is “essential for memory and learning,” said Gefen, the lead author. Study November comparing the brains of deceased SuperAgers with the brains of older and younger cognitively normal people and people diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease.
The brains of SuperAgers had three times less tau tangles, or abnormal protein formations inside nerve cells, than the brains of cognitively healthy controls, the study also found. Tau loops are a recognizable sign of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
“We believe that larger neurons in the entorhinal cortex suggest that they are ‘structurally healthier’ and may be able to withstand neurofibrillary tau tangle formation,” Gefen said.
Gefen also found that the brains of SuperAgers have many more von economo neurons, a rare type of brain cell, which have so far been found in humans, great apes, elephants, whales, dolphins and songbirds. Like a corkscrew, von economo neurons are thought to enable rapid communication through the brain. More theory is that neurons give humans and apes an intuitive advantage in social situations.
Von economo neurons were found in the anterior cingulate cortex, which forms a collar in the front of the brain connecting the cognitive, reasoning side with the emotional, feeling side. The anterior cingulate is thought to be important for emotion regulation and paying attention – another key to good memory.
Taken together, these findings seem to point to a genetic link to becoming a SuperAger, Gefen said. However, she added: “The only way to confirm whether SuperAgers were born with larger entorhinal neurons would be to measure these neurons from birth to death. That is clearly not possible.”
SuperAgers share similar traits, said Rogalski, who is also associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Feinberg. These people remain physically active. They tend to be positive. They challenge their brains, read or learn something new every day – many continue to work well into their 80s. SuperAgers are also social butterflies, surrounded by family and friends and can often be found volunteering in the community.
“When we compare SuperAgers with normal people, we see that they tend to support more positive relationships with others,” Rogalski said.
“This social connectedness may be a feature of SuperAgers that distinguishes them from those who are still doing well but what we would call average or normal aging,” she said.
Looking back on her life, Carol Siegler recognizes many traits of a SuperAger. As a young child during the Great Depression, she learned to spell and play the piano. She learned to read Hebrew at her grandfather’s knee, studying his weekly Yiddish newspaper.
“I have an excellent memory. I always had it,” Siegler said. “I was always the kid you could say, ‘Hey, what’s Sofia’s phone number?’ and I would know it by heart.”
At 16, she finished high school and immediately went to college. Siegler received her pilot’s license at the age of 23, and later started a family business in her basement that grew to 100 employees. At 82, she won the American crossword tournament for her age group, which she said she entered “as a joke.”
After seeing a commercial for the SuperAger program on television, Siegler thought that sounded like fun, too. Being chosen as a SuperAger was a thrill, Siegler said, but she knows she was born lucky.
“Someone with the same abilities or talents as a SuperAger who lived in a place where there were very few ways to express them may never know that he or she has them,” she said. “And that’s a real shame.”