A team of researchers led by Bradford Dickerson, MD, Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, and their colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital has published a groundbreaking study that holds great promise for the prevention and treatment of age-related memory loss.

The work focused on a small group of “superagers”—adults between the ages of 60 and 80 whose memories were comparable to that of adults in their 20s and 30s. Unlike the vast majority of older adults in their age group who suffer a gradual erosion of memory-related mental skills as they grow older, these superagers’ brains remained youthful and sharp. The study revealed that, in contrast to the brains of normal agers, those of superagers appear to resist age-related atrophy in key brain areas involved in memory, learning, attention and executive function.

“Our findings send a strong message of optimism to people who are worried about losing their memories as they age,” says Dr. Dickerson, director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit in the Department of Neurology at Mass General. “It’s very exciting. What we learned helps to shift the focus of research on age-related memory loss from trying to understand what causes a decline in memory performance to looking for what might help individuals develop resistance to that decline. Answering that question will bring us closer to developing treatments that can help prevent or treat old-age memory loss.”

What Factors Prevent Memory Loss?

“The fact that we were able to identify a number of healthy individuals who qualified as superagers suggests that they are not that rare, and that it might be possible to identify factors that they have in common that set them apart from normal agers and helps explain their brain resilience,” says Dr. Dickerson. “Hopefully, this would one day lead to effective strategies that might help all older adults maintain a more youthful brain.”

Dr. Dickerson points out that a number of earlier studies have uncovered specific factors that are associated with better memory performance in older age, and he is in the process of assessing the superagers in this respect. Some of these factors involve the individual’s genetic makeup and life experiences. But Dr. Dickerson suspects that the superagers’ secret to maintaining a youthful memory also may involve five other, modifiable factors, which help protect and strengthen memory.

“In the past, many of us assumed that brain shrinkage and memory decline were an unavoidable part of aging. Now we have found that there are people who have withstood the effects of age—they are somehow resistant.

Bradford Dickerson, MD
Director, Frontotemporal Disorders Unit in the Department of Neurology

5 Tips to Maintain a Youthful Brain

Evidence from a number of studies suggests that regular exercise slows brain aging and helps prevent shrinkage in key memory areas. “In one recent study, a group of sedentary adults who exercised for six months increased the size of an important memory region of the brain by up to two percent, while a similar group that remained sedentary saw a one percent shrinkage in the same region,” says Dr. Dickerson.

Recommendation: If your doctor approves, try for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week.

People who are socially active have a lower risk of cognitive decline, research shows.

Recommendation: Resist the tendency to isolate yourself. Instead, reach out to old friends and make new acquaintances. Join social groups and volunteer to help out in community projects where you can make new friends.

A nutritious diet maximizes brain health.

Recommendation: Consume a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, lean meats and poultry. Avoid processed foods, excessive sugar and unhealthy saturated fats.

Research suggests that people who remain intellectually active in older age are more likely to perform well on tests of memory and cognition.

Recommendation: Busy your brain with stimulating activities, such as learning to play a musical instrument, surfing the Internet or painting a landscape.

Mindfulness meditation and other relaxation techniques help lower stress that can damage memory ability.

Recommendation: Try to spend 20 minutes or more each day engaging in meditation, visualization, yoga or another relaxation exercise.

The Superager Study

For their groundbreaking study, Dr. Dickerson and his colleagues recruited a group of adults and tested their memory performance. Forty-one of the participants were young adults between the ages of 18 and 35, and 40 were ages 60 to 80. Among the older adults, 17 tested out as superagers who performed as well on the memory tests as the younger adults. Twenty-three of the older participants tested within normal ranges for their age group. All participants underwent brain scans to determine whether their brains showed signs of atrophy in regions involved in memory processes.

According to the study, published September 14, 2016 in The Journal of Neuroscience, there was a strong correlation between memory performance and levels of atrophy in key memory regions in the older participants, but not in the younger ones. The superagers were found to have retained youthful volume in three key brain systems. One of these was the default mode network engaged during memory and retrieval (which includes the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory, and the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the outer layer of the brain involved in thinking). A second region that was found to retain youthful volume in superagers was the salience network (a system of brain regions involved in attention, motivation and executive function tasks). The brains of superagers also resisted atrophy in an area called the para-midcingulate cortex, which allows different brain networks to communicate efficiently.

The researchers found that when the 23 older participants who tested within the normal range for their age were read a list of words and asked to repeat them following a 20-minute wait, they could remember only eight or nine words. In contrast, the superagers remembered 14, 15 or 16 words from the list—a performance level matching that of the younger participants.

“In the past, many of us assumed that brain shrinkage and memory decline were an unavoidable part of aging,” says Dr. Dickerson. “Now we have found that there are people who have withstood the effects of age—they are somehow resistant. These people have demonstrated that it’s possible to maintain youthful abilities into older adulthood, and that’s a message of hope. Now we need to find out what it is that they have done to preserve such resilience.”

What You Can Do

Thinking of protecting your memory by beginning a brain-healthy exercise routine?

Here’s what you can do:

1. Check with your doctor to be sure that exercise is safe for you.

2. Consult the National Institutes of Aging (NIA)  for detailed descriptions of exercises suitable for older adults.

Remember to warm up before working out and gradually increase exercise intensity and duration as you gain strength and conditioning over time.