The human brain becomes slower with age and memory is less reliable. However, some older adults have exceptional memories that are significantly better than those of the same age group. And now scientists understand why.
“Super old men” (the term was invented and coined by the neurologist Marcel Mesulam) are people whose memory and attention are not only better than the average of their age group, but are at the level of healthy 25-year-olds
In the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the researchers recruited 40 adults over 65 and 41 young adults with an average age of 25. They each passed the same memory test, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) recorded activity in their brains. In the test, subjects viewed 80 images of a face or scene. Each image was associated with an adjective. For example, the cityscape had the adjective “industrial” and the guy’s face was “average.”
The participant had to determine if the words matched the image. After 10 minutes, each subject was given 80 original images and words, 40 new images and words, and 40 images that they had seen earlier, but with different adjectives. The challenge in this part of the test was to assess whether they had seen the pair before, and if not, whether they were looking at a new image or an old image with a new word. The fMRI monitored how the brains of these people worked during the test.
The results showed that the brains of vigorous seniors worked in exactly the same way as those of people who were 40 years younger. Scientists don’t know if they always had this ability or if something compensated for the aging brain’s natural decay.
Previous research has shown that this part of the memory can be trained, so it is possible that “super old” are not born, but become. The researchers plan to study these people in more detail to better understand how they keep their brains young.