MADRID, Spain — A recent study suggests that people in their 80s (octogenarians) who possess exceptionally sharp memories tend to move faster than their peers. These older individuals, often called “superagers,” can vividly remember daily events and life experiences as though they were decades younger. As a result, they demonstrate greater mobility than their peers.
The study revealed that these individuals typically defy the standard trajectory of memory decline associated with aging. They exhibit lower rates of anxiety and depression, greater independence, and superior performance on intelligence tests.
This research, one of the largest studies of its kind, was conducted at the Queen Sofia Foundation Alzheimer Centre in Spain. The team discovered that superagers were also more likely to have a musical background compared to other older adults. Additionally, blood sample analyses indicated that superagers had fewer neurodegenerative biomarkers than their counterparts.
The researchers selected participants who performed on par with or better than average individuals about 30 years younger and with similar education levels. Superagers excelled in the Timed Up and Go mobility exam, which measures finger tapping speed, demonstrating superior mobility, agility, and balance compared to typical older adults.
Medical professionals observed that superagers reported lower levels of depression and anxiety. These conditions can negatively impact memory performance and increase the risk of developing dementia. The group of fast-thinking individuals also reported leading more active lifestyles and being happier with their sleep patterns.
A machine learning computer model analyzed these seniors as well, highlighting that superagers moved faster and had superior mental health. Consistent with previous research, MRI scans showed that the group had more grey matter in the brain regions involved in memory and movement. Overall, the grey matter was found to degenerate at a slower pace over a five-year period compared to their counterparts.
“We are now closer to solving one of the biggest unanswered questions about superagers: whether they are truly resistant to age-related memory decline or they have coping mechanisms that help them overcome this decline better than their peers,” says first author Marta Garo-Pascual from the Queen Sofia Foundation Alzheimer Center, in a media release.
“Our findings suggest superagers are resistant to these processes, though the precise reasons for this are still unclear. By looking further into links between superaging and movement speed we may be able to gain important insights into the mechanisms behind the preservation of memory function deep into old age.”
Previous research has indicated that superagers typically maintain stronger social connections. However, the scientists, writing in The Lancet Healthy Longevity, cautioned that these studies often suffer from small sample sizes and fail to track changes over time, which leaves a gap in our understanding of demographic, lifestyle, or clinical factors that may help preserve memory function.
The research team studied 64 superagers and 55 typical older adults between 69 and 86 years-old, none of whom had neurological or severe psychiatric disorders. The superagers were identified based on a memory test, with women comprising about 59 percent of the group, while 64 percent of the typical older adults were female. Participants underwent six annual follow-up visits to record demographic and lifestyle factors.
MRI scans were conducted to measure grey matter volume, and a range of clinical tests, including blood sample tests, were performed to screen for neurodegenerative disease biomarkers that could increase their risk of Alzheimer’s.
A machine learning computer model, testing 89 demographic, lifestyle, and clinical predictors, was used to identify factors associated with superaging.
“Though superagers report similar activity levels to typical older people, it’s possible they do more physically demanding activities like gardening or stair climbing. From lower blood pressure and obesity levels to increased blood flow to the brain, there are many direct and indirect benefits of being physically active that may contribute to improved cognitive abilities in old age,” adds senior author Dr. Bryan Strange of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.
“We have shown before that when young adults make movements at the same time as seeing pictures, they are more likely to later remember the picture than if they don’t move. It’s also possible that having better brain health in the first place may be what’s responsible for superagers having faster movement speed.”
“Further research in these areas may ultimately reveal ways to help preserve memory function in more older people. What we have, however, discovered is that there is an overlap between risk or protective factors for dementia and those associated with superaging (such as blood pressure, glucose control and mental health). This raises a possibility that some putative risk factors for dementia are, in fact, contributing to age-related decline in memory-related brain activity that may act in parallel or additively with dementia pathophysiology to amplify memory impairment,” Dr. Strange continues.
The experts warned the machine learning model could only identify superagers versus regular adults around 66 percent of the time. They added this indicates additional factors are linked with superaging, and these may be genetic.
South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.