89-year-old “SuperAger” found to have brain function of 25-year-old… doctors baffled as “brain decline” theories blown away

New research proves that while brain aging is inevitable, brain decline is not. Research made on octogenarians who are “superagers” give exciting new evidence to how we perceive geriatric care and mental health.

It has become standard knowledge that old people forget things. The elderly are ascribed to pity and ill-concealed contempt. Almost gratuitously, we forgive these mental lapses because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, a new group of older adults are challenging these assumptions. Case in point: Donald Tenbrunsel is an 89-year old with the cognitive age of a 25-year-old. Not only is Tenbrunsel a decade older than the average male life expectancy, his brain is as sharp as a millennial’s. He is part of a new group of “superagers” who assert that “typical” signs of aging — such as being forgetful or not being able to learn new things — may not be as typical as initially believed.

In a groundbreaking study, scientists have physiological proof on how the brains of these superagers differ from the average elderly person. The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, determined that the brains of these octogenarians deteriorated at a much slower rate compared to their peers. The study’s author, Emily Rogalski of Northwestern University says, “when you think about normal aging, memory performance starts to decline in our late 20s and 30s. But when you look at individual data points, there’s a lot of variability in decline in our later years. There are people who seem to avoid this decline in memory performance.”


Rogalski and her team screened more than 1,000 people who claimed to have an outstanding memory. Only five percent qualified for the research. Twenty-four men and women were then compared to 12 similarly-aged “cognitively average” adults using MRI technology. Participants were screened over an 18-month period. It was found that while both groups lost brain volume, superagers did at a much slower rate compared to the control group. In fact, the average elderly person seemed to lose brain volume twice as fast as a superager.

Rogalski says, “We already knew [superagers’] brains are bigger than their peers. But what we wanted to know is if it was because they were born with bigger brains, or if it was more because they’re on a truly different aging trajectory and aren’t losing brain mass at the same rate as an average ager.”

A review of the participants showed that the thickness of the cortex — the outer layer of folded gray matter — in superagers did not lessen at the same rate as the average person. The cortex is a critical area of the brain and is responsible for higher-level thinking, planning, problem-solving, and memory. Damage or shrinkage of this area results in cognitive impairment. Superagers are able to maintain their vibrancy because they “may have different brain volumes…they’ve been losing their brain volume at a different rate,” says Rogalski.

Nature vs. nurture

In part, superagers won the genetic lottery. Dr. Ezriel Kornel, a neurologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City says that there are people who are naturally born with bigger brains. The larger size would mean that there is a surplus that can be used during the aging process. Regardless, Dr. Kornel stresses, “there are so many factors involved. It could be that even external stressors in children can influence how the brain develops.”

Several studies show that practicing good lifestyle habits can keep the brain young. One study found the exercise combats cognitive decline. Older adults who regularly engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise had a 36 percent lowered risk of any form of cognitive impairment. Diet has also been linked to improved memory and better executive function.

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