If, for a second, you ignore the small slump in lifespan over the past couple of years, people today are living longer than ever before in human history. Sadly, while life expectancy is on the rise, life quality isn't necessarily keeping up. There is, however, a subset of the population that scientists dub the "superagers".
These men and women aged 80+ remain cognitively young, which means their brains and mental abilities seem relatively immune to the degeneration most of us experience with age. While others slide into senility, a superager's memory, use of language, and cognition stay on point. This remains true even when they show biological signs of dementia, like deposits of deformed proteins and neurofibrillary tangles.
Now, researchers speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting on Sunday have identified a particular neuron that could influence this excellent brain health.
“We are getting quite good at extending our lifespan but our health span isn’t keeping up and what the superagers have is more of a balance between those two, they are living long and living well,” Emily Rogalski, from Northwestern University, told audiences at the conference.
So, what separates superagers from their more average peers? Post-mortem analysis of the brains of 10 superagers revealed these individuals possess a higher density of Von Economo neurons (VENs) than average. VENs are spindle-shaped brain cells generally found in the anterior cingulate cortex. The anterior cingulate, importantly, is an area of the brain believed to be key for all things memory related.
Interestingly, the superagers also had more VENs than the majority of 50 to 60-year-olds, despite being more than two decades older.
“When we look at the rate of cognitive thinning in the cognitively average 80-year-olds, their brains are thinning at nearly two and a half times that of the superagers,” said Rogalski.
Only 5 percent of people are born superagers, said Rogalski. These lucky few share certain personality traits. Her research suggests that superagers are more resilient and optimistic towards life’s trials. They also tend to be more extroverted and less neurotic than average.
Personality tests the superagers took showed a “unique personality profile, highlighting optimism, resilience, and perseverance as well as active lifestyles,” Rogalski said. “Positive social relationships” and "reading and travel” were also common themes.
Another interesting find: they aren't necessarily the health puritans you expect them to be. Rogalski’s research shows that 71 percent of superagers smoked and 83 percent regularly enjoyed a drink.
“We ask them why is it that you think you are a superager, how did you get here, and there are a couple of funny ladies and they will say, well it’s because I have a martini with my friends every day at 5 o’clock. Others have never had a drink,” Rogalski added.