Centenarians Can Be “Cognitive Super-Agers”

(p. D7) Fewer than 1 percent of Americans reach the age of 100, and new data from the Netherlands indicate that those who achieve that milestone with their mental faculties still intact are likely to remain so for their remaining years, even if their brains are riddled with the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Findings from the Dutch study may eventually pave a path for many more of us to become “cognitive super-agers,” as researchers call people who approach the end of the human life span with brains that function as if they were 30 years younger.

One day everyone who is physically able to reach 100 may also be able to remain mentally healthy. By studying centenarians, researchers hope to identify reliable characteristics and develop treatments that would result in healthy cognitive aging for most of us. Meanwhile, there is much we can do now to keep our brains in tiptop condition, even if reaching 100 is neither a goal nor a possibility.

These hopeful prospects stem from the study of 340 Dutch centenarians living independently who were tested and shown to be cognitively healthy when they enrolled. The 79 participants who neither died nor dropped out of the study returned for repeated cognitive testing, over an average follow-up of 19 months.

The research team, directed by Henne Holstege at Vrije University in Amsterdam, reported in JAMA Network Open in January that these participants experienced no decline in major cognitive measures, except for a slight loss in memory function. Basically, the participants performed as if they were 30 years younger in overall cognition; ability to make decisions and plans and execute them; recreate by drawing a figure they had looked at; list animals or objects that began with a certain letter; and not becoming easily distracted when performing a task or getting lost when they left home.

Even those with genes linked to an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease were able to perform well on the tests.

Nearly a third of the participants agreed to donate their brains after death. Brain autopsies of 44 of the original centenarians revealed that many had substantial neuropathology common to people with Alzheimer’s disease although they had remained cognitively healthy for up to four years beyond 100.

For the full commentary, see:

Jane E. Brody. “Living to 100 and Staying Sharp.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 22, 2021): D7.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 21, 2021, and has the title “The Secrets of ‘Cognitive Super-Agers’.”)

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