Michelle Roberts Health Editor, BBC
Why do some older people have higher cognitive abilities than people 30 years younger? A group of American scientists believe they are on the verge of answering this great medical question.
According to the scientists, the octogenarians they study, also called ‘super-old’, may have larger nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for memory.
And the reason is that these people may have been born with these cells, or their neurons may or may not have grown in size over the years.
According to the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, more research is needed in this area to help fight dementia.
The researchers want to focus primarily on how changes in nerve cells can affect the health of our brains. And they wonder: do these cells offer protection to the elderly, or are they just a reflection of a healthy brain?
The main goal of Northwestern University’s Aging Research Program in the US – which has been ongoing for more than a decade – is to try to find out what keeps the brain sharp and how it might protect against dementia.
The program is aimed at people over 80 years old, who have proven to have a privileged memory – within the standards established by scientists – and who are ready to undergo periodic evaluations.
Additionally, participants must agree to donate their brains to science when they die.
Based on several MRI studies carried out in the past, the researchers involved in the study concluded that the brains of these “super seniors” function like that of a 50-year-old and do not reflect the age of over 80 that everyone has.
And autopsies of donated brains focused on the entorhinal cortex, which controls memory.
The researchers examined six brains of these “super-old” people, seven brains of middle-aged adults, five with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and six brains of young people who died from causes unrelated to the disease.
And they found that the brains of the “super-old” had larger, healthier neurons than the other brains they examined.
Another finding documented by the researchers is that they were less likely to have abnormal protein deposits, which is common in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
For Rosa Sancho, from the UK Alzheimer’s Research team, the Northwestern University researchers’ findings could help find new treatments for dementia.
“More research will be needed to find out exactly what makes these brain cells in the super-elderly larger and more protected. For example, are older people born with a genetic trait, and if so, which one?” , points out Sancho.
“As researchers work to understand how to stop the changes in the brain that cause dementia, there are small steps we can all take to keep our brains healthy as we age,” he adds. Exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease is not yet known, but many factors are believed to increase the risk. Some of them, like age and genetics, are unavoidable, but other factors like quitting smoking, healthy diet and exercise can help lower your risk. Lead researcher at Northwestern, Professor Tamar Gefen, told the BBC she plans to take a detailed portrait of older people studying to better understand what lies behind these non-aging brains. “We need to study your genetics, your lifestyle factors and your level of education. We also need to capture your story and personal stories. the death”.