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Although she volunteers and works out at the gym several days a week, frequently socializes with friends and family, reads all kinds of books, and does crossword puzzles daily, Carol Siegler , 85, is restless.
“I’m bored. I feel like I’m using a Corvette as a grocery cart,” Siegler, who lives in suburban Chicago, told Palatine.
Siegler is a cognitive “SuperAger”, possessing a brain as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger. She is part of an elite group enrolled in the Northwestern SuperAging research program, which has been studying older people with superior memories for 14 years. The program is part of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“I auditioned twice for ‘Jeopardy!’ and did well enough to be invited to the live auditions. Then Covid hit,” Siegler said.
“Who knows how well I would have done,” she added with a chuckle. “What I told my kids and anyone who asked me, ‘I may know a lot about Beethoven and Liszt, but I know very little about Beyoncé and Lizzo.'”
To be a SuperAger, a term coined by Northwestern researchers, a person must be over 80 and undergo extensive cognitive testing. Acceptance into the study only occurs if the person’s memory is as good or better than that of cognitively normal people in their 50s and 60s.
“SuperAgers need to have exceptional episodic memory – the ability to recall daily events and past personal experiences – but SuperAgers just need to perform at least average on other cognitive tests,” the cognitive neuroscientist said. Emily Rogalski, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
Only about 10% of people who apply to the program meet those criteria, said Rogalski, who developed the SuperAger project.
“It’s important to point out that when we compare SuperAgers to average older people, they have similar IQ levels, so the differences we see aren’t just down to intelligence,” she said.
Once accepted, colored 3D scans are taken of the brain and cognitive tests and brain scans are repeated approximately every year. Analyzing the data over the years has yielded fascinating results.
Most people’s brains shrink as they age. In SuperAgers, however, studies have shown that the cortex, responsible for thinking, decision-making and memory, remains much thicker and shrinks more slowly than that of people in their 50s and 60s.
The brain of a SuperAger, usually donated to the research program by participants after they die, also has larger, healthier cells in the entorhinal cortex. It’s “one of the first areas of the brain to be ‘affected’ by Alzheimer’s disease,” Tamar Gefen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, said in an email.
The entorhinal cortex has direct connections to another key memory center, the hippocampus, and “is essential for memory and learning,” said Gefen, the lead author of a November study comparing the brains of Deceased SuperAgers to those of cognitively normal older and younger people. and people diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease.
SuperAger brains had three times fewer tau tangles, or abnormal protein formations in nerve cells, than the brains of cognitively healthy controls, the study also found. Tau tangles are a hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
“We think the larger neurons in the entorhinal cortex suggest they are more ‘structurally healthy’ and may be able to resist the formation of neurofibrillary tau tangles,” Gefen said.
Gefen also discovered that the brains of SuperAgers had significantly more von economo neurons, a rare type of brain cell, which so far has been found in humans, great apes, elephants, whales, dolphins and songbirds. Corkscrew-shaped von economo neurons are thought to enable rapid communication across the brain. Another theory is that neurons give humans and great apes an intuitive advantage in social situations.
Von economo neurons were found in the anterior cingulate cortex, which forms a necklace at the front of the brain connecting the cognitive side, reasoning, to the emotional side, feeling. The anterior cingulate is thought to be important for regulating emotions and paying attention – another key to good memory.
Taken together, these findings seem to point to a genetic link to becoming a SuperAger, Gefen said. However, she added: “The only way to confirm whether SuperAgers were born with larger entorhinal neurons would be to measure these neurons from birth until death. This is obviously not possible. »
SuperAgers share similar traits, said Rogalski, who is also associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Feinberg. These people stay physically active. They tend to be positive. They challenge their brains every day, by reading or learning something new – many continue to work well into their 80s. SuperAgers are also social butterflies, surrounded by family and friends, and can often be found volunteering in the community.
“When we compare SuperAgers to normal seniors, we find that they tend to approve of more positive relationships with others,” Rogalski said.
“This social connectedness may be a characteristic of SuperAgers that sets them apart from those who are still doing well but who are what we would call an average or normal ager,” she said.
Looking back on her life, Carol Siegler recognizes many SuperAger traits. As a young child during the Great Depression, she taught herself to spell and play the piano. She learned to read Hebrew on her grandfather’s lap, bending over his weekly Yiddish newspaper.
“I have an excellent memory. I always had it,” Siegler said. “I was always the kid you could say, ‘Hey, what’s Sofia’s phone number?’ and I would know it by heart.
She graduated from high school at 16 and immediately went to college. Siegler got his pilot’s license at age 23 and then started a family business in his basement that grew to have 100 employees. At 82, she won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for her age group, which she said she entered “like a gag”.
After seeing an advertisement for the SuperAger program on TV, Siegler thought that sounded like fun, too. Being chosen as a SuperAger was fun, Siegler said, but she knows she was born lucky.
“Someone with the same abilities or talents as a SuperAger who lived in a place where there were very few ways to express them, might never know they had them,” she said. “And that’s really a shame.”
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