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Why are some 80-plus-year-old seniors as sharp as people 30 years younger?

Grayce Papp Oak Park Evelyn Finegan River Forest are part Northwestern's study SuperAgers people their 80s who have memory comparable

Grayce Papp of Oak Park and Evelyn Finegan of River Forest are part of Northwestern's study of SuperAgers, people in their 80s who have memory comparable to those in their 50s. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: March 13, 2012 8:03AM



Shirley Haas, 87, exercises 30 minutes a day, plays five separate Scrabble games on Facebook each night and takes a weekly class on Parisian-themed books and movies.

Evelyn Finegan, 82, volunteers with the homeless, participates in a book club and holds ticket subscriptions to six local theaters with her friend, Grayce Papp.

Papp, 83, is president of her condominium board, tutors children weekly and boasts that even after eight decades, “I can get down on my hands and knees and scrub a floor.”

Ponce de Leon never found the fountain of youth, but a group of Northwestern University scientists studying the effects of aging on the brain may be furthering his quest. Researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine are in the early stages of studying a group of extraordinary elderly men and women, including Haas, Finegan and Papp, that they call SuperAgers.

The 27 mostly local seniors — all 80 years or older — qualified for the study by proving on test after test that their memories are as sharp as those of a typical person in his 50s.

“As you age, things change,” said Emily J. Rogalski, an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your memory gets worse, your muscles decline. What we noticed is that sometimes people don’t fit this criteria. They are over 80 and still cognitively sharp.”

In a group of healthy agers, there were standouts — seniors whose memory didn’t seem afflicted in the normal way by aging, Rogalski said. Researchers began to consider what these men and women might be able to contribute to our understanding of aging, memory loss and dementia.

“It’s the opposite way of looking at Alzheimer’s,” Rogalski said. “Instead of what’s going wrong with the brain, what’s going right?”

Rogalski said there are many ways to age gracefully, and memory is just one of them. Superior memory is the bar used to qualify for the study, and the bar is set high. The study’s authors so far have interviewed more than 200 people looking to participate in the study. Twenty percent of them made it through the initial phone screen.

Papp, who called Rogalski’s team after seeing a flyer posted in her condominium building’s laundry room, said she was surprised to learn her memory was so acute.

“All my life I have gone into a room to get something and thought, what have I come in for?” she said, laughing.

While the three women all live active lifestyles that those decades younger might envy, Rogalski says the SuperAgers in her group come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“Some have less than a high school education. We have people who have medical degrees,” she said. “We have people at 80 who are going to the gym five days a week and leading exercise classes and people who still smoke a pack a day and have for 30 years.”

“There is no one path to SuperAging,” she said, adding that researchers believe that all participants provide clues into the way the aging brain functions.

Publication of the research from Rogalski’s group, which has studied the SuperAging phenomenon for more than four years, is pending. But the early data is giving intriguing clues into the mystery of aging.

Those qualified for the study undergo extensive tests of memory, IQ and executive function. There are DNA blood tests and MRIs of their brains. Eighteen months after the initial three-day screen, they are asked to report back to the lab for another two days of testing. They will be part of the study as long as they are alive and willing to participate.

Some of the MRIs revealed the possibility that their brains shared characteristics with younger brains atypical of an average brain in an 80-year-old. The SuperAgers’ brains weren’t shrinking in the same way most brains shrink as people age. The reason for this isn’t clear but as the study grows, researchers hope to learn about possible connections to lifestyle or genetics.

The SuperAgers are asked to donate their brains for further study after they die.

“They commit to brain donation so at the time of death we can see if (the brain) is resistant to age-related pathology,” Rogalski said.

Papp and Finegan first met each other in 1943 in their freshman year Latin class at Steinmetz High School. That year, a senior named Hugh Hefner was making his name as the cartoonist for the school newspaper.

The two traveled to Palm Beach after graduation to work with friends as waitresses; a trip to Europe, where Finegan joked they developed a reputation as “international freeloaders,” followed. Their friendship and their love of travel has held steady for nearly seven decades — in 2010, they took Papp’s Prius on a six-week, 6,000-mile road trip to Seattle and cruise through Alaska. When Finegan’s aunt needed assistance in Florida, the two hopped in the car and drove south to help.

Neither graduated from college; both worked for much of their adult lives. Finegan is a widow with a daughter and two grandchildren. Papp never married.

Their memories and wit are sharp but they do show small signs of aging. Finegan has macular degeneration, which makes it difficult to read and impossible to drive. Papp has had two cataract operations and takes medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Still, the two aren’t slowing down.

Likewise, SuperAger Haas isn’t wasting a moment of her free time. Also a widow, mother and grandmother, she spends time each week at the Center for Life and Learning in Streeterville, run by the Fourth Presbyterian Church. There, she participates in exercise and memoir writing classes, as well as a weekly “cultural conversation” led by a University of Chicago professor where she reads and discusses Hemmingway and watches French New Wave cinema.

Twice a week, she participates in water aerobics with her “pool pals” at Fitness Formula Club, often meeting classmates for lunch on dry land. Haas has subscriptions to two theater companies and the symphony. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, a master’s from Northern Illinois University and spent her career writing for newspapers or working in public relations.

Every summer, she vacations at her Canadian summer home, which lacks running water and electricity. She has to take a boat to get there.

“My motto is keep moving,” she said.

While she was on medication for osteoporosis and uses a cane to walk, she travels the city by CTA and now takes only Vitamin D and a calcium supplement. She has to think when asked if she has any unhealthy habits.

“I like martinis,” she said. “But I only have one before dinner if I go out to dinner.”

The three SuperAgers separately said the study has been simply another fun activity with which to fill their retirement years.

“They’re nice young people,” Haas said of Rogalski and her team.



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