When I'm a little old lady, my second dream is to have the barbed wit of Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls. (I am, after all, pretty sarcastic and under five feet tall.) My first dream, though, is to remember like an elephant revved up on Red Bull. I've got zero promises that my memory will serve me that well, but researchers think they've identified some key ways the brains of superagers are different than the brains of those who experience normal or accelerated cognitive decline. (For clarity, a superager is usually defined as someone 80+ years old who can function cognitively like someone in their 50s or 60s.) With luck, I'll end up in the former group (and you will, too).
So what might researchers find if my dreams come true and they look at my noodle? As Peter Dockrill of Science Alerts reports, according to a superaging study led by neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, my brain likely would show the following:
1. Less shrinking
During 10 autopsies, Rogalski's team found that superagers have cortexes that are much thicker than normal, comparable to people 30 to 40 years their junior. While it's not clear if that extra thickness is there right from the womb, Rogalski says that some shrinkage of the brain is normal with aging. Rogalski found that average 80-somethings experienced more than twice the rate of loss compared to superagers, which suggests that superagers' brains simply don't shrink as fast.
2. More Von Economo neurons
Von Economo or spindle neurons are a special type of brain cell. Researchers think that, during evolution, these larger, fast cells developed to meet the signal demands of the bigger human brain. But they became central to social sensitivity/intelligence and emotion, helping us make split-second decisions in complex situations. According to Rogalski, superagers can have more Von Economo neurons than some 20-year-olds.
So far, scientists have found Von Economo neurons in only three brain regions, including the frontoinsular cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. The last of these is important not only for emotional regulation and empathy, but also for executive function and cognitive processes, including both attention and working memory.
What you can do
Rogalski and other scientists still don't know why these differences are present. Because Von Economo neurons develop until a person is around four years old but also according to species history (that is, through evolution or phylogeny), the answer might be genes, the environment or a combination of both. But if researchers can solve that riddle, they might be able to unravel some of what's needed to keep us mentally sharp longer. That has wonderful implications not just for staying at the helm of companies for more years or starting them later in life, but also for enjoying a general quality of life in our golden years that is much higher than we now expect.
While we might not be able to control everything that contributes to graceful mental aging, in her article for The New York Times, Lisa Feldman Barrett points out that the areas of the brain associated with superaging stay thick and healthy when you work hard at something. As in, sweaty-fervor-on-the-fence-between-genius-and-profanity hard. That includes physical work. So while a daily crossword certainly won't hurt you, you're going to have to tackle bigger problems if you really want to do your brain a real favor. So push yourself. Take the hard question. Get frustrated. Try again. It's worth it.