"Super-agers": How their brains are different and how they may help all of us

(CBS News) Nearly all of us develop memory problems as we age. But the brains of the few so-called "super-agers" seem to stay young -- and researchers at Northwestern University believe they may show us all how to improve our mental health.

Super-agers are defined as people in their 80s who have memory performance -- and brain size -- the same as people in their 50s or 60s, Dr. James Galvin, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, explained on "CBS This Morning."

Super-agers, researchers have found via MRI study, have more brain cells and less atrophy than other people the same age. Galvin said, "The few (super-agers) who had died, they study under autopsy, they seemed to have actually more neurons, more brain cells in certain regions of the brain that are responsible for the higher order processing that we do with our memory and thinking."

Galvin added, "Interestingly, when they look back at their records, there weren't a lot of differences between people from the medical records who have super memories than those who don't."

However, Galvin said living a healthy lifestyle is one way to help your brain as it ages. "You think about the brain, it's a complex organ," he said. "It's a combination of time, as you age, your genes -- which you can't change -- and then your environment -- which you can."

"You can think about brain diseases as really a disorder of a lifetime," he said. "There are things we can do to build a better brain. We can stay mentally active, physically fit, socially engaged, eat a heart-healthy diet. We can avoid head injuries. We can protect ourselves. Have good, positive lifestyles, no smoking, drinking, drug use."

"I think, more importantly, is when we find we have a problem, is to go to medical attention really early because one of the biggest risk factors for memory problems is high blood pressure, diabetes," he said. "And if you don't take care of those, it's really going to affect your brain as you get older."

Perhaps next on the agenda is figuring out why super-agers' neurons are staying so robust. Galvin said if researchers can figure that out, in theory it could lead to something "that would help all people."

Watch Galvin's full "CBS This Morning" interview about super-agers in the video above.

  • Amanda Cochran

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