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Traits of Super-ager 90-Year-Olds

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Researchers may have uncovered a key reason why some people remain sharp as a tack into their 80s and 90s: Their brains resist the buildup of certain proteins that mark Alzheimer's disease.

A recent study focused on traits that scientists call “super-agers.” That’s a select group of older people who have the memory performance of people much younger, reports WebMD, in a recent article entitled “Why Some ‘Super Ager’ Folks Keep Minds Dementia-Free.” The article says that these super-agers exhibited far less evidence of “tau tangles” in their brains compared with older people who had average brainpower. Tau is a protein that, in healthy brain cells, helps stabilize the internal structure.

However, abnormal versions of tau, those that attach to other tau proteins, can develop as well. Those who have Alzheimer’s have brains marked by a large accumulation of those tau tangles, as well as “plaques,” which are clumps of another protein called amyloid.

Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago who led the new study, says that it’s the buildup of tau — not amyloid — that correlates with a decline in memory and thinking skills. She noted that these latest findings on the traits of super-agers are in line with that research.

No one is sure how many super-agers are out there, but the study involved people aged 80 and older.

The big question is, what does it take to be a member of this elite group? Doctors say that it’s likely genetics, at least in part. However, it might also be good genes, lifestyle factors, and exposures over a lifetime, such as physical activity, social engagement, and mentally stimulating experiences enhance the traits of super-agers.

Gefen’s team examined brain tissue from seven super-agers (all women) who died in their 80s or 90s. The brain tissue samples of super-agers were compared with brain studies from six elderly adults who’d had normal thinking skills before their deaths. They found that the super-agers had all taken standard memory tests and scored at or above the norm for people 20 to 30 years younger. Moreover, the researchers found that both super-agers and their peers had similar amyloid plaques in the brain.

However, they differed with tangles. Those with average memory and thinking skills had three times the number of tau tangles in a memory-related brain region called the entorhinal cortex. The findings suggest a role for tau in the “secrets” to super-aging, but it does not mean plaques are unimportant. Abnormal amyloid and tau may interact with each other and other factors to fuel Alzheimer’s brain changes.

Gefen says that it’s probably a complex mix of factors — nature and nurture — that allows super-agers to resist typical age-related declines in brainpower.

While only a few people will become super-agers, there are ways for everyone to support their brain health. This includes controlling heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes, getting regular exercise, eating healthfully, and staying engaged mentally and socially.

Reference: WebMD (Feb. 23, 2021) “Why Some ‘Super Ager’ Folks Keep Minds Dementia-Free”