What Mass General researchers are learning about the brains and lifestyle of seniors who haven’t lost their youthful memory may someday help all of us become “superagers” too.

A gradual decline in memory is a dreaded effect of normal aging. But Massachusetts General Hospital researchers have discovered that some people in their 60s, 70s or 80s have the youthful memories of 20-year-olds and their brains show why. Bradford Dickerson, MD, a behavioral neurologist in the Mass General Memory Disorders Unit, and his colleagues are trying to learn as much as possible about these so-called “superagers.” He hopes their studies will point to ways all of us could become superagers with youthful memory too.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could prescribe a superager lifestyle!”

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could prescribe a superager lifestyle,” says Dr. Dickerson, the director of the Mass General Frontotemporal Disorders Unit who holds the Tom Rickles Endowed Chair in Primary Progressive Aphasia Research.

Using ultra high resolution brain imaging, his team found that superagers do not have the microscopic shrinkage of brain structures that is typical of those who age normally. This was discovered in circuits of the brain important for learning and remembering. “The larger the size of certain brain structures within this circuitry, the better their memory performance,” Dr. Dickerson says. “This was not known before.”

An MRI image of the brain's memory center: on top, labeled with green, is the larger volume of a superager's brain compared to the area labeled in red in the bottom scan, someone who is aging normally.
An MRI image of the brain’s memory center: on top, labeled with green, is the larger volume of a superager’s brain compared to the area labeled in red in the bottom scan, someone who is aging normally.

Words and Youthful Memory

Just how good are their memories? The 81 participants in the study — about half ages 60-80 and half ages 18-35 — were given memory tests. They were read a list of 16 words. It was repeated five times. After being distracted with something else for 20 minutes, they were asked to recall as many words as possible.

Someone at age 25 can remember 14, 15 or even all of the words, says Dr. Dickerson. Someone at age 70, who is healthy and normal, can remember about 8 or 9. But 17 older participants emerged as superagers: they could remember 14, 15 or even 16 words, just like the younger participants.

Dr. Dickerson and his colleagues are investigating all the possible reasons the brains of these superagers are resilient to aging. They already know that the superagers’ IQs and level of education are no higher than their peers. But perhaps they started out with better memory as young adults or always had bigger brain structures?

Changes Mapped Over Time

“We’re trying to figure out if superagers are experiencing the normal age-related decline at a similar rate, but maybe just started at a higher level,” he says. They are periodically scanning the brains of superagers to map changes over time.

Perhaps superagers are more willing to tackle memory tasks. “They may approach these tasks as a challenge they can succeed at, in contrast to typical older adults who may give up or feel that they can’t do it,” Dr. Dickerson explains.

Dr. Dickerson anticipates a time in the next decade when a brain scan will be done routinely, like a colonoscopy screens for colon cancer.

Using special imaging methods that light up where the brain is activated when performing a task, his team is examining whether there are differences in the way superagers’ brains activate when engaged in a challenging task.

It could also be that superagers are born with a set of genes that makes their brains resilient. Dr. Dickerson is collaborating with geneticists in Mass General’s Center for Human Genetic Research to study the genetics behind superaging.

They are also examining differences in diet and exercise, and exposures to toxins, diseases and chronic stress. Stress hormones called glucocorticoids are known to contribute to brain shrinkage.

Bradford Dickerson, MD, hopes that what is learned about superagers will also help those with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
Bradford Dickerson, MD, hopes that what is learned about superagers will also help those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Preserving Brain Health

Dr. Dickerson anticipates a time in the next decade when a brain scan will be done routinely, like a colonoscopy screens for colon cancer. If a scan shows early shrinkage, “We could develop a personalized prescription to help people optimize their brain health,” he says.

In previous research, Dr. Dickerson’s team found shrinkage in some of the same brain areas in people who later developed Alzheimer’s disease. Although about a quarter of people by age 75 have silent, early signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains, superagers don’t seem to. To find out more, the researchers plan to do brain scans to measure the amount of amyloid in the superagers’ brains. Amyloid is the sticky plaque associated with Alzheimer’s that builds up between nerve cells.

“I’m hoping that some of what we learn about aging might also help us slow down progression of these mind-robbing diseases as well,” says Dr. Dickerson, who cares for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

To learn more about how you can support Dr. Dickerson’s research, please contact us.

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