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New study examines the mystery of SuperAgers and their super memories

VirginiKenealy plays scrabble with her friend Jack Keefe her home August 16 2012. She is considered one 12 people who

Virginia Kenealy plays scrabble with her friend Jack Keefe in her home August 16, 2012. She is considered one of 12 people who are so-called super-agers which means that she scored at or above the norm of 50-65 year-olds on memory screenings. | Tom Cruze

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Updated: September 18, 2012 6:17AM

Virginia Kenealy, 84, says she’s pretty typical.

The retired secretary likes to go walking in her Oak Park neighborhood, can’t get enough Sudoku and she loves going to Colorado and New Hampshire to see her six grandchildren.

But a new study published on Thursday suggests that Kenealy, who is what’s known as a SuperAger, is actually unusual — at least when it comes to her brain.

SuperAgers are elderly people in their 80s and older who scored at or above the norm of the 50- and 65-year-olds on memory screenings.

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine have long wondered what it is about SuperAgers that gives them such terrific memories compared to their elderly counterparts.

Thursday’s study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society has found that the SuperAger participants’ brains look as young – and in one brain region, are even bigger – than the brains of middle-aged participants.

Determining what’s unique about the brains of SuperAgers could potentially lead to strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combating Alzheimer’s disease, said Emily Rogalski, senior author of the study and assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brains of SuperAgers,” Rogalski said.

Dr. Murali Rao, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Loyola University Health System who was not involved in the study, agreed that the findings are “significant,” because “[if we] put everything together, it will probably help us as we go forward in understanding this [Alzheimer’s] disease much better.”

Northwestern Medicine recruited SuperAgers from local areas like at community lectures and also through word of mouth, which was how Kenealy learned about it.

The study is based on 3D MRI scans from 12 SuperAgers, 10 normally aging elderly people and 14 middle-aged people.

Researchers couldn’t measure the number of brain cells. But based on the thickness of the cortex — the area of the brain where neurons or brain cells reside — they could tell that the SuperAgers had significantly thicker cortex than their age-matched elderly peers and had no significant atrophy compared to the 50- and 65-year-olds. Usually with age, brain cells begin to die, which makes the cerebral cortex thinner.

An unexpected finding was that one area of the brain region — known as the left anterior cingulate cortex — was actually thicker in the SuperAgers than in both the elderly and middle-aged participants.

Rogalski speculated that this thicker area, located near the middle of the brain, may allow SuperAgers to have a particularly keen sense of attention and ability, which in turn makes it easier for them to remember things.

But Rogalski said that more research is needed to figure out how much of SuperAgers can be explained by the pathology of the brain, their lifestyle and their genetics.

“The SuperAgers seem to come from all different walks of life — they don’t necessarily all have college degrees, and they may not live pristine lifestyles as far as exercise and diet- some of them are very interested in exercise and diet while others are using a walker or are less active, still others have been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years,” Rogalski said.

Most of the SuperAger participants plan to donate their brains to the study, and they will be followed as long as they are alive and willing to participate.

Friends have told Kenealy that she tends to recall details of what they did a long time ago that no one else had remembered. Kenealy said she “likes word games, crossword puzzles and my family…and I played Scrabble a lot. But it wasn’t because we were thinking of our brain. We just did it because it was fun.”

Other than that, though, Kenealy says she’s clueless about what makes her special.

“I really don’t know,” she said. “I just find life interesting on the whole.”

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