How and why do some older adults defy typical cognitive aging?
That’s the question Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., research associate professor, Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has been studying for more than 10 years.
On Thursday, March 30, she shared some of her findings with prospective and current residents of Montgomery Place, a continuing care retirement community, 5550 South Shore Drive. Rogalski was joined by SuperAger study participant Sandra Pesmen, an 86-year-old journalist and author, who jokingly called herself “Exhibit A.” Like other SuperAgers, Pesmen excels at hearing a story and easily recalling the details in proper sequence.
“At our Center, we are conducting a wide range of studies,” Rogalski said. “We see three groups of older adults—those who experience accelerated decline, those who experience what would be considered normal decline, and those with a super trajectory who maintain great neurological and cognitive performance as they age.”
For the SuperAger study, which focuses on individuals whose episodic memory and cognitive abilities are as good as those of people in their fifties and sixties, Northwestern researchers interviewed and tested more than 1,000 applicants. Currently, 74 SuperAgers—55 women and 19 men, ages 80 to 95—are participating in this unique study.
Once enlisted in the study, SuperAgers are tested every 24 months, and their brains are scanned with MRIs. They respond to a battery of questions and take on memory tasks. Researchers also conduct extensive interviews to determine lifestyle and family history and administer personality inventory tests.
According to Rogalski, SuperAgers typically are less neurotic and more extroverted, agreeable and able to trust others. The lifestyle survey for SuperAgers revealed: 87 percent exercise regularly, 71 percent note previous tobacco use, 82 percent drink, and 18 percent still work.
True to form, SuperAger Pesmen still works and walks a mile and a half a day. She also possesses a hallmark personality trait—curiosity.
Montgomery Place resident Nate Kalichman, 95, also participates in the SuperAgers study. “I was hooked on the whole subject,” said the retired psychiatrist and physician who practiced in the Detroit area. “I find anything involving the function of the brain fascinating.”
After retiring, Kalichman relocated to downtown Chicago and later moved to Montgomery Place. For more than 10 years, he has visited Northwestern at regular intervals to answer questions that test his memory and cognitive function.
Perhaps the most astonishing finding relating to the SuperAgers is MRI scans reveal their brains do not show the typical signs of aging. For most 80-year-olds, there’s a decrease in the thickness of the outer layer of the brain, referred to as gray matter. “With SuperAgers, there’s no thinning of this outer layer,” said Rogalski. She added that deep within the brains of SuperAgers, the anterior cingulate, which controls emotion and the ability to focus attention, also remains healthy and uncompromised.
Regardless of the latest brain imaging technologies, the best way for researchers to study the geography of the brain and the aftermath of aging is to dissect it, which is why study participants are required to donate their brains, Rogalski said.
Like Pesmen, Kalichman has agreed to donate his brain for examination. “I think this is an important study,” he said. “I felt it was important to participate because I think this may be helpful in preventing various forms of dementia and developing treatments.”
To learn more about participating in the SuperAger study and other aging studies at Northwestern University, call Emmaleigh Loyer at 312-503-2716 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.