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Studying superagers

CHICAGO — Barb Shaeffer would love to meet with you this afternoon, but not until 2. The 85-year-old has a noon meeting to plan a Christmas party, and there's no telling how long that might take. Shaeffer knows the holiday is four months away, but if you don't book your event space early, she says, the good spots fill up.

Shaeffer is a busy woman, what scientists call a superager — someone who continues to function at a high cognitive level even as most people her age see their memories recede.

Northwestern University researchers examined 12 such superagers from the Chicago area, ages 80 to 90, and found that the cortex of their brains — a region important for cognition — looked more like a middle-aged person's than an average octogenarian's.

Dementia is most obvious when someone develops a condition such as Alzheimer's disease, but less drastic forms of memory loss are part of the normal aging process, said Emily Rogalski, a Northwestern professor on the research team.

Understanding why some elderly people avoid that degeneration could lead to a breakthrough in treating and preventing memory loss, Rogalski said.

"A lot of studies are figuring out what's going wrong with the brain," Rogalski said. "We hope by identifying what's going right with the brain that we can "… develop strategies for avoiding disease and disability."

The study participants aren't all former child prodigies and retired doctors. Only four of the 12 have a college degree, and Rogalski said there was no evidence that the superagers had exceptional memories at other stages of life.

But as their peers saw cognitive abilities decline later in life, the superagers continued to thrive.

Don Goldsmith, an 83-year-old superager from Highland Park, Ill., teaches a class about baseball history to other seniors. He keeps up with the White Sox, travels to see his family and is looking forward to playing golf and tennis again after he recovers from a back ailment.

Shaeffer, who lives in a downtown high-rise with a view of Lake Michigan, does two crossword puzzles every morning over a cup of black coffee. She often completes an entire book on her Kindle in a day (she's on a mystery kick right now). Shaeffer also is redecorating her condo and preparing for her three fall classes, one of which she co-teaches, through a Northwestern program for retirees.

Twelve superagers, including Shaeffer, underwent brain scans and had their minds compared with those of a group of their peers aging normally and with a control group of people ages 50 to 65. Goldsmith met all the criteria for the study, Rogalski said, but was not included because he was recruited after the paper was written. He is part of a broader Northwestern project following about 30 superagers.

The study of the dozen superagers, performed at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, found two brain features that could help explain their sharp memories. On average, the superager's cerebral cortex was as thick as those in the middle-aged control group. Researchers believe a shrinking cerebral cortex contributes to an age-related decline in memory.

But more surprising, Rogalski said, is that the superagers had one brain region, the left anterior cingulate cortex, that was significantly thicker than both their peers and the middle-aged control group.

"(The anterior cingulate) is important for a lot of cognitive functions," Rogalski said, "one of which is attention. It's possible that the superagers have particularly keen attentional abilities and that those attentional abilities could then support memory."

It's too early to know where this study will lead, but Rogalski and her team believe it could one day provide insight into the causes of Alzheimer's.

The findings, published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, are part of a wider examination of why some elderly people avoid dementia. Northwestern's superagers are asked to will their brains to the university, something Goldsmith and Shaeffer said they would do, for continued study after death.

That possibility of a long-term benefit encouraged Goldsmith and Shaeffer, whose mother had Alzheimer's, to take part in the project.

As for why her own mind remains bright, Shaeffer mentions genetics but also cites another factor.

"It's attitude," she said. "I don't care what you do, it's attitude.

"I'm interested in what's going on. I'm still interested enough to get up and go find out about stuff."

That curiosity led her on a trip to visit friends in El Salvador this year and on a train trek across Canada.

"I don't think of myself as 85," she said. "I don't think of myself as 50. I don't think of myself as an age."

But despite her distaste for ages, it's reassuring for Shaeffer to hear that her brain shares traits with people more than three decades her junior.

"I don't know how sharp I was at 50," Shaeffer said, "but it's kind of nice."

Goldsmith attributes his longevity to a combination of factors, including genetics, good medical care, a healthy lifestyle and "blind luck." While his mind remains sharp, occasional lapses cause him concern. Sometimes he'll drive past his destination or leave his engine running.

"I think everybody at that age, to some degree," worries about dementia, Goldsmith said.

That concern is part of the reason he started teaching the class about baseball history to other seniors at the Florida retirement community where he spends his winters. He's already planning this year's curriculum, and he'd like to include a panel on steroids and a discussion of the Negro Leagues.

He'll also stay involved in the Northwestern research, he said, for "the pleasure of knowing maybe I'm doing something to alleviate the suffering from this awful disease."