Study seeks super agers' secrets to brain health

They're called "super agers" - men and
women who are in their 80s and 90s, but
with brains and memories that seem far
Researchers are looking at this rare group
in the hope that they may find ways to
help protect others from memory loss.
And they've had some tantalizing findings:
Imaging tests have found unusually low
amounts of age-related plaques along with
more brain mass related to attention and
memory in these elite seniors.
"We're living long but we're not
necessarily living well in our older years
and so we hope that the SuperAging study
can find factors that are modifiable and
that we'll be able to use those to help
people live long and live well," said study
leader Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at
Northwestern University's cognitive
neurology and Alzheimer's disease center
in Chicago.
The study is still seeking volunteers, but
chances are you don't qualify: Fewer than
10 percent of would-be participants have
met study criteria.
"We've screened over 400 people at this
point and only about 35 of them have
been eligible for this study, so it really
represents a rare portion of the
population," Rogalski said.
They include an octogenarian attorney, a
96-year-old retired neuroscientist, a 92-
year-old Holocaust survivor and an 81-
year-old pack-a-day smoker who drinks a
nightly martini.
To qualify, would-be participants have to
undergo a battery of mental tests. Once
enrolled, they undergo periodic imaging
scans and other medical tests. They also
must be willing to donate their brains after
The memory tests include lists of about 15
words. "Super agers can remember at
least nine of them 30 minutes later, which
is really impressive because often older
adults in their 80s can only remember
just a couple," Rogalski said.
Special MRI scans have yielded other
remarkable clues, Rogalski said. They
show that in super agers, the brain's
cortex, or outer layer, responsible for
many mental functions including memory,
is thicker than in typical 80- and 90-year-
olds. And deep within the brain, a small
region called the anterior cingulate,
important for attention, is bigger than
even in many 50- and 60-year-olds.
The super agers aren't just different on
the inside; they have more energy than
most people their age and share a
positive, inquisitive outlook. Rogalski said
the researchers are looking into whether
those traits contribute to brain health.
Other research has linked a positive
attitude with overall health. And some
studies have suggested that people who
are "cognitively active and socially
engaged" have a reduced chance of
developing Alzheimer's disease, but which
comes first - a healthy brain or a great
attitude - isn't known, said Heather
Snyder, director of medical and scientific
operations for the Alzheimer's
Snyder said the SuperAging study is an
important effort that may help provide
some answers.
Edith Stern is among the super agers. The
petite woman looks far younger than her
92 years, and is a vibrant presence at her
Chicago retirement home, where she acts
as a sort of room mother, volunteering in
the gift shop, helping residents settle in
and making sure their needs are met.
Stern lost most of her family in the
Holocaust and takes her work seriously.
"What I couldn't do for my parents, I try
to do for the residents in the home," she
said, her voice still thick with the accent
of her native Czechoslovakia.
Stern acknowledges she's different from
most people at the home, even many
younger residents.
"I am young - inside. And I think that's
the difference," she said.
"I grasp fast," she adds. "If people say
something, they don't have to tell me
twice. I don't forget it."
She's different in other ways, too.
"When you get old, people are mainly
interested in themselves. They talk about
the doctor, what hurts," she said. "You
are not so important that you just
concentrate on yourself. You have to
think about other people."
Study participant Don Tenbrunsel has a
similar mindset. The 85-year-old retired
businessman doesn't think of himself as a
super ager. "Neither do my children," he
says, chuckling.
But Tenbrunsel says his memory has been
sharp "from the time I was born. My
mother used to say, `Donald, come sing
with me - not because I had a good voice,
but because I always knew the words," he
said. "I think I'm just lucky, not only with
respect to my memory, but I'm able to get
around very well; I walk a lot and I have a
pretty good attitude toward life itself."
Tenbrunsel volunteers several hours a
week at a food pantry run by the Chicago
church where he is a parishioner. One
recent morning in the sun-filled rectory
kitchen, he nimbly packaged ham and
cheese sandwiches, set out bags of chips
and cans of soda, and cheerfully greeted
a steady stream of customers.
"Good morning, good to see you," he
said, standing at the pantry's bright red
door. He gave everyone their choice of
chips - a small gesture but important, he
said, because it gives them some sense of
control over their hard-luck lives.
"I enjoy doing it. I probably get more out
of it than I give," Tenbrunsel said.
Ken Zwiener, of Deerfield, Ill., is another
super ager. He had "more than an inkling"
he might qualify for the study, and his
kids encouraged him to enroll.
"They said, `Dad, your brain is the best
thing about you,'" the 81-year-old retired
businessman recalled.
He's a golfer and Broadway musical "nut"
who created a 300-plus-page computer
database of shows. Zwiener uses an iPad,
recently went hot-air ballooning and is
trying to learn Spanish.
He also pours himself a vodka martini
every night and is a pack-a-day cigarette
smoker, but says he doesn't think his
habits have made much difference. His
healthy brain, he says, may be due to
heredity and genes, but Zwiener said he
hopes the study comes up with more
"scientific insights".
"My dad lived into his middle 90s and
was pretty sharp right up until the day he
died," Zwiener said.
Zwiener's motivation for joining the study
was simple: The best man at his wedding
died of Alzheimer's disease before age 50.
"To lose a mind ... is just a terrible way to
go," he said.