I saw a video the other day where a guy was talking about contradictions in terms. Like jumbo shrimp, or sanitary sewers or Microsoft Works.
Here’s a contradiction that I’ve been think about a lot lately. SuperAgers with Alzheimer’s.
It seems so incongruous. These SuperAgers, as they’re called, are adults in their 80s or 90s who score off the charts on memory tests. Their cognitive abilities remain so good, they have the brainpower of people half their age.
And yet, some of them have Alzheimer’s. How can that be? That’s what I want to talk about today. Because there’s a lesson in that for all of us.
Hi, I’m Tony Dearing, of GoCogno.com, the website for people with mild cognitive impairment.
You may be aware of these SuperAgers, or at least heard of them. There are about 60 of of them and they’re being studied by researchers at Northwestern University.
Obviously, science is very interested in these cognitive wonders because if we can understand how they remain so mentally sharp at such an advanced age, it might help the rest of us reduce the cognitive decline that we experience as we grow older. It might even eventually help lead to a cure for dementia someday.
Except here’s a wrinkle the researchers didn’t expect. Some of these SuperAgers already had Alzheimer’s and didn’t even know it.
When a super-ager passes away, their brain is donated to science for further study. And the brains of some of them had the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s. In fact, two of them had brains that were ravaged in a way that is usually only seen in the most severe cases of Alzheimer’s.
So far, that discovery has led to more questions than answers. Still, there’s a reason I want to talk about it today. Out there in the general public, and particularly among people with mild cognitive impairment, there seems to be massive amounts of misunderstanding and confusion over what is MCI? What is Alzheimer’s? What’s the difference between them? And how can you tell?
On a basic level, what I want you to understand is: There is something called Alzheimer’s pathology. And there is something called Alzheimer’s dementia. But they are not the same thing.
So let’s start with Alzheimer’s pathology. What I’m talking about here is what are called plaques and tangles. These miscreant proteins can accumulate in the brain, and they are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
That is what researchers found in the brain of some of these SuperAgers — massive amounts of plaques and tangles. They had very advanced Alzheimer’s pathology. But they did not have dementia.
And here’s why. Because Alzheimer’s pathology can exist in the human brain for decades before you begin to see even the first signs of dementia, and in some cases, it never reaches the point where dementia sets in.
Even before the SuperAger research, we knew that. There is another famous study, the Nun Study, that began 1986, and there was the case of Sister Bernadette. Even at the age of 83 or 84, when Sister Bernadette was cognitively tested, she was fine. Very sharp. Yet when she died the following year at the age of 85, they found that her brain was riddled with plaques and tangles.
Now whether it’s SuperAgers or nuns, one thing we definitely want to understand better is how these people were able to fend off dementia.
It may be partly genetic, something in the composition of their brain that made them less susceptible.
But even now, it’s become pretty clear that there are things about the way they lived their lives that helped, too.
How much education they had, the foods they ate, the way they managed stress, the degree to which they kept themselves cognitively stimulated, how social they were, how they lived life with a positive attitude.
Those things result in a more resilient brain, and the more resilient the brain is, the better able it is to compensate for the damage being done by the Alzheimer’s pathology.
What might this understanding mean to you? Well, I would suggest a couple of things.
Because a lot of people with MCI don’t have Alzheimer’s pathology. They don’t have this accumulation of plaques and tangles. So, no Alzheimer’s.
When there is Alzheimer’s pathology, there’s still an opportunity to defend your cognition. To do things that help make your brain more resilient. To give it a better chance of compensating.
Someday, we’ll have better answers, hopefully sooner than later. But it is not outside the realm of possibility that the steps you take now could buy you enough time to get to that day.
I hope this mini-lesson in Alzheimer’s has been helpful to you. It’s something to think about. Perhaps it gives you hope — and a willingness to act.
Thanks for joining me today. I’ll see you again next week. Until then, as always, be kind to your mind.