Northwestern University study looks to "super agers" for answers on dementia

August 17, 2012

Quinn Ford

Grayce Papp and Evelyn Finegan say they have a lot in common.

They’re both from Chicago, both 83 years old. The two attended Steinmetz College Prep at the same time, and Papp says they both thought they were pretty cool while they were there.

“We thought we were just--to use an expression from the 1920s--the cat’s meow,” Papp said.

At Steinmetz, they both took Latin class their freshman year. That’s where they met.

But there’s one similarity researchers at Northwestern’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center are particularly interested in: their memories.

Papp and Finegan are both participating in a study looking at mentally sharp seniors, in order to better understand dementia. Researchers call their study group of unique 80-somethings “super agers.”

Cognitive neurologist Emily Rogalski is part of the research team. She said memory loss is a normal part of aging, even for those who don’t develop dementia, but “super agers” are different.

“What we found was that the super agers’ brains looked more like the individuals who are 50 to 65 years old than the 80 year olds that had normal memory,” Rogalski said.

Rogalski said understanding why super agers avoid memory loss could lead to better treatment for dementia, and she said it’s a different approach than other researchers have taken.

“In Alzheimer’s Disease research, we’re trying to figure out what’s going wrong with the brain, and then trying to take what’s going wrong and figure out how to reverse it,” Rogalski said. “So this is sort of a twist on that.”

Rogalski said the study began five years ago and is on-going. She said, at this point, they haven’t been able to draw any conclusions as to why super agers retain more memory than other people their age. Rogalski said the subjects vary in terms of things like education, diet, and lifestyle.

“There doesn’t seem to be any one thing that has emerged that I could tell you today that if you go and eat grapes at 10 in the morning or drink a glass of wine every night, you’ll be okay,” Rogalski said.

In the meantime though, Grayce Papp said she takes a bit of pride in being called a super ager.

“I think it’s amusing. I don’t feel like I’m a super ager, but if anyone wants to call me that, well, be my guest,” Papp said.