You’ve all been told about how the brain changes as part of getting older. While certain areas of the brain shrink, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital have found that older adults whose memory and thinking skills are comparable with young adults have no shrinkage in the brain regions associated with memory loss.
Known as ‘super agers’, the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience provides a few clues as to why you retain these abilities of resilient memory and youthful thinking, and preserve the brain areas that are linked to those abilities.
The most prefrontal cortex of the brain (that’s a zone in the front of the frontal lobe) and the hippocampus (the part of the limbic system located above the brain stem and below the cortex) are two of the main parts of the brain that shrink with age. These areas are associated with learning, memory, planning and other complex mental activities.
When these brain areas starts to shrink, you start to experience a decline in your ability to learn new things, retrieve information, and struggled to perform tasks of attention, learning and memory.
The Massachusetts General Hospital team enrolled 40 older adults aged between 70 and 80 years and 41 adults aged between 18 and 35 years. More than half (23) of the older participants showed normal results for the group, the other 17 performed equally well to the younger adults.
“Previous research on super ageing has compared people over 85 to those who are middle-aged,” Alexandra Touroutoglou, co-senior author of the study. “Our study is exciting because we focused on people around or just after typical retirement age — mostly in their 60s and 70s — and investigated those who would remember as well as people in their 20s.”
When conducting imaging studies on the brain of the super agers, it was revealed that the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus were similar in size to those of young adults.
The team looked at a set of brain areas knows as the ‘default mode network’, that is the area associated with learning and remembering new information, and found that those areas (particularly the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex) were thicker in super agers than in other older adults.