Donald Tenbrunsel is 89 years old, but he is just as likely to talk to you about Chance the Rapper as reminisce about Frank Sinatra.
The highly engaged and delightful conversationalist, who reads, volunteers and routinely researches questions on the Internet, is part of a new path-breaking Northwestern Medicine study that shows that SuperAgers’ brains shrink much slower than their age-matched peers, resulting in a greater resistance to “typical” memory loss and dementia.
Over the course of the 18-month study, normal agers lost volume in the cortex twice as fast as SuperAgers, a rare group of people aged 80 and above whose memories are as sharp as those of healthy persons decades younger.
“Increasing age is often accompanied by ‘typical’ cognitive decline or, in some cases, more severe cognitive decline called dementia,” said first author Amanda Cook, a clinical neuropsychology doctoral student in the laboratory of Drs. Emily Rogalski and Sandra Weintraub. “SuperAgers suggest that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable.”
The study was published today, April 4, in JAMA. Senior author Dr. Emily Rogalski will present the findings at the 2017 Cognitive Aging Summit in Bethesda, Maryland, April 6.
SuperAger Tenbrunsel, who lives with his daughter’s family, is intent on being a good conversationalist with his three grandchildren.
“I have to adapt to that kind of life,” Mr. Tenbrunsel said. “They don’t know much about Frank Sinatra or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so I have to keep saying, ‘Is the Chance the Rapper coming this week or is it Taylor Swift?’”
The researchers already knew SuperAgers’ brains tended to retain more brain volume and typically don’t show the same wear-and-tear as normal agers.
“For this study we explored whether SuperAgers’ brains were on a different trajectory of decline,” said Dr. Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We found that SuperAgers are resistant to the normal rate of decline that we see in average elderly, and they’re managing to strike a balance between life span and health span, really living well and enjoying their later years of life.”