Scientists hope to unlock mystery of aging by studying senior citizens called 'super agers'

FOX 32 NEWS - We all expect that as we get older, our memories start to decline and thinking skills go downhill. But that isn't the case for everyone.

Scientists have discovered there's a group of senior citizens who for some reason don't experience that decline. They are called "super agers" and the hope is that studying them could unlock the mystery of aging.

It was a gathering made up of seniors, but not just any seniors. They’re part of an elite group of people over 80 that are being studied because they are so called "super agers."

Neuroscientist Emily Rogalski is a lead investigator.

"Individuals who are over 80 that have memory performance that is almost as good as age 50's or 60's,” Rogalski said.

What’s the secret? That’s the great mystery Northwestern researchers are trying to unravel. Why are these seniors aging at a healthier pace than their counterparts? Ask a super ager and you might get different answers.

Lilian Rubenstein is 93 years old.

"I take the approach you've got to live life to the fullest, the good and the bad,” she said.

Herma Goldstein is 104.

"I go to exercise class 5 times a week,” she said.

To get to the bottom of their youthful nature, scientists are focusing on the super agers' brain. And it turns out, their brains display marked differences from their peers, including physical shape and shrinkage typically found in aging.

And there's a particular region of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex that was much thicker than an average 80-year-old and closer to a 50-year-old brain.

"We know that the interior Cingulate is important for attention and attention supports memory,” Rogalski said.

So how can we all become super agers? There’s no definitive answers. But there are some anecdotal results from these special seniors that we could learn from.

They are socially engaged and active, with family, friends and their community. They come from all walks of life and many have suffered hard times, battling cancer and losing children. But throughout the hardships, they are very resilient and always seem to bounce back.

"I think that's something we can take home with us today, is we are all going to experience stress but our reaction to it may be important for our biology and may be important for aging,” Rogalski said.

For these seniors, being part of this elite group is a badge of honor and their proud to be associated with each other.

Edith Smith is 102 and says until recently, she was still driving on Chicago freeways. She believes to keep your mind sharp, you have to stay active and take care of yourself first.

The study is on-going and Northwestern is still looking for participants, but the criteria is strict.

Less than 5-percent of the people who have applied to become a super ager, many of them have donated their brains after they die.

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