Brain Health

Superagers’ White Matter Less Prone to Cognitive Decline

You’ve probably heard of “superagers”—people in their 80s and older whose cognitive function is comparable to someone middle-aged. Although the jury is still out on exactly which factors contribute to superaging, most experts agree that genetics, lifestyle, and brain biology all seem to play important roles.

Recently, a new study published in JNeurosci; The Journal of Neuroscience examined the structural integrity of white matter in these unique seniors and found that they exhibited “superior microstructure” in the fibers in the frontal region of the brain. This was despite comparable white matter health to those of typically aging older adults.

The Research on Superagers

For the research, a team of scientists from The Laboratory for Clinical Neuroscience, Centre for Biomedical Technology at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid-Spain used a sample from the Vallecas Project cohort. The Vallecas Project was a longitudinal study of 1213 Caucasian adults in Madrid designed to identify very early markers of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Selecting 64 superagers (mean age 81.9; 59% women) and 55 “typical” older adults (mean age 82.4; 64% women), the researchers collected MRI data to evaluate the microstructure and health of white matter, particularly:

• white matter volume

• lesion volume

• quantification of white matter hyperintensities

Although superagers performed better on cognitive tests, both groups demonstrated a similar rate of cognitive decline over time. The exception was performance on an “animal fluency” test, in which the superagers had slower decline.

The Results

The results showed that both groups had similar white matter health in terms of white matter volume, white matter lesions, and severity of lesions. Where the superagers stood out, however, was when the scientists looked at the white matter microstructure. They found that this unique group had:

• higher fractional anisotropy

• lower mean diffusivity

These two measures are related to brain decline at the microstructural levels. They were particularly noticeable in the frontal areas.

“The paradigm of superagers shows how an old person can naturally age with excellent memory,” says The Laboratory for Clinical Neuroscience neurobiologist and first author Dr. Marta Garo. “This is key when trying to fight against the pathological deterioration of memory because the study of the superager brain will help us understand which brain structures are important to have a good memory as we age. The identification of these structures could potentially help to inform brain stimulation treatments.”

Factors contributing to the “superager” label

A previous study of the same cohort of superagers worked to identify which lifestyle and medical factors contributed to the classification.

“We found that superagers have better mobility, better mental health, less glucose disorders and hypertension problems, and a higher interest in music,” said Garo, adding that because the researchers couldn’t infer causality from the study and therefore couldn’t definitely state that controlling these factors would help someone become a superager. “Nevertheless, these findings point out that having good mental and physical health, as well as having hobbies, could contribute to healthy aging.”


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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