A new study shows why some ‘SuperAgers’ have amazing memories well past their 80s

Researchers discovered SuperAgers have larger and healthier neurons that allow them to stay mentally sharp.
Brittney Grimes
Elderly couple riding bikes.
Elderly couple riding bikes.


SuperAgers have super-neurons to thank for their incredible memories as they age, according to a recent study.

What keeps SuperAgers young?

Although these 'SuperAgers', a term created by Northwestern Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease describing people aged 80 years and older, do often practice healthy habits to keep their memories sharp, a new study reveals that nerves in their brains could be responsible. These bigger neurons allow them to age at a rate much slower than the average octogenarian.

The new study was published in The Journal of Neuroscience. It reveals that nerves in the area of the brain responsible for memory, called the entorhinal cortex (ERC), were much larger in SuperAgers when compared to their peers with average cognitive capabilities. This peer group comparison included the elderly with early onset of Alzheimer’s disease and individuals 20-30 years younger.

Neurons of SuperAgers

Researchers discovered that neurons of the SuperAgers did not contain tau tangles, or abnormal deposits of protein that can accumulate inside neurons, impairing them. These tau proteins are often a huge sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

The research

The research for SuperAgers and their incredible memories was conducted at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. The research program is called the Northwestern SuperAging Research Program. The study shows that SuperAgers with extraordinary memories have unique biological traits that consists of healthier nerve cells in the ERC.

The study mentioned that participants donated their brains for research.

“To understand how and why people may be resistant to developing Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to closely investigate the postmortem brains of SuperAgers,” said Tamar Gefen, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “What makes SuperAgers’ brains unique? How can we harness their biologic traits to help elderly stave off Alzheimer’s disease?”

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For this study, scientists “examined the brains of six SuperAgers, seven cognitively average elderly individuals, six young individuals and five individuals with early stages of Alzheimer’s.”

The team then measured the size of the nerve cells within the ERC and looked for the presence tau tangles in the cortex.

They were able to find that the brains of SuperAgers did not have the formation of tau tangles that cause Alzheimer’s.

Significance of the findings in this study

In this study, researchers were able to find “that a neuron spared from tangle formation can maintain its structural integrity (i.e., remain healthy and large). The inverse also seems to be true: Tau tangles can lead to neuronal shrinkage.” This allows researchers to believe that they might be closer to finding a way to forestall Alzheimer’s diseases and its damaging effects.

“The remarkable observation that SuperAgers showed larger neurons than their younger peers may imply that large cells were present from birth and are maintained structurally throughout their lives,” Gefen said.

“We conclude that larger neurons are a biological signature of the SuperAging trajectory,” she continued. Therefore, in this discovery, researchers say it’s possible that people could be born with these larger cells that allow them to stay mentally and cognitively sharper than their peers. There is also the implication that the structure of their biological makeup remains prevalent throughout their lives.

The study that could stop Alzheimer’s disease from forming in the future

This research shows huge promise in solving the mystery of what causes Alzheimer’s disease. It allows researchers to determine early factors of Alzheimer’s and take steps towards creating an effective form of treatment, and perhaps even a cure. But the real hope is overall prevention, to find out how SuperAgers do not get Alzheimer’s in the first place and figure out how to stop it from forming to begin with. “What are the chemical, metabolic or genetic features of these cells that render them resilient?” Gefen asked. Once that question is answered, it can be used to one day eradicate the debilitating and progressive disease.

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