What They Found in “Superagers’” Brains SHOCKS Scientists
A few weeks ago I told you about so-called “superagers”—people over 80 with the brains of folks 30 years younger. To recap: scientists have identified a tiny subset of the population that seems unremarkable till they hit middle age. But once they hit their fifties, these folks don’t show the decrease in memory ability that we normally see in the “senior” population. It’s as if their brains get to age 50 or 55 and then just stop aging.
There doesn’t seem to be any common thread connecting them. Their IQs are all over the place, so it isn’t a matter of simply being more intelligent to begin with. Nor does it seem to be lifestyle-related; some have lived very health-conscious lives while others smoke, drink, and eat what they want. It’s a puzzle science would dearly like to solve.
Scientists are frantically searching for some common factor that causes “superagers’” brains to stay so youthful. If they find it, it just might give us some tools for understanding and possibly treating dementia and other degenerative brain diseases. But so far they’ve come up empty. The only thing they’ve noted is that “superagers’” brains have much less age-related shrinkage than normal brains. But as of yet, they have no clue why.
And now they’ve discovered something that goes against what we thought we knew about aging and the brain. In fact, the new findings turn everything we’ve been told about Alzheimer’s disease on its head. Because some of these “superagers”—folks with amazing memories, whose mental ability is equal to that of people 30 or 40 years their junior—have brains that are chock-full of the plaques and tangles we’re told are the “hallmarks” of Alzheimer’s disease.
Is everything we thought we knew about Alzheimer’s wrong?
Science really, really hates to give up its pet theories. And nowhere is this more true than in medicine. (Witness the fact that there are still plenty of die-hards insisting that fat causes heart disease and that low-fat, high-carb diets are the way to lose weight.)
It looks like this might also happen with Alzheimer’s disease theories.
For decades we’ve been told that Alzheimer’s is causedby plaques and protein tangles that build up in the brain. These plaques, the theory goes, are toxic. They make neurons die. And as neurons die, we lose brain function. Eventually we end up with severely shrunken brains and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
This is the theory that all our attempts to treat Alzheimer’s have been built on. Drug after drug has been developed only to fail in the end. Drugs that clear these plaques out of the brain do nothing to slow Alzheimer’s or even reduce the symptoms. In fact, removing plaques seems to make people even sicker. This alone should be a clue that the plaque theory is wrong, but science is doesn’t want to consider that.
Other largely-ignored research suggests that plaques are actually the body’s effort to protect the brain. Some of the most compelling science out there hints that plaques may be part of the immune response, and that they may form in the presence of certain infections or inflammation. This new research adds a lot of weight to that theory.
Why are we still protesting that the earth is flat?
Here’s the science: Researchers at Northwestern University looked at brains which came from “superagers.” These were people who died in their 90s but had the memory and cognitive scores of the average 50-year-old till they died. It was a very small study—only eight brains in total. But what they found was shocking beyond words if you believe the current theory of Alzheimer’s.
All the brains had the “hallmark” plaques and tangles we associate with Alzheimer’s. In fact, two brains were as filled with them as the brains of people with the most severe cases of Alzheimer’s disease. And yet, none of these people had Alzheimer’s. Instead they had the brainpower of their children or even their grandchildren.
If the current theory of Alzheimer’s is correct, then this is flat-out impossible. If we throw that theory out as unproductive, however, then it’s entirely possible…and logical. It fits beautifully with the theory that plaques are in fact neuro protective instead of neuro destructive.
But of course medicine doesn’t want to consider that. There are billions of dollars tied up in new Alzheimer’s drugs and treatments based on the plaque theory. And medicine is doing some serious mental gymnastics to try to make this new research fit that model.
The leader of the study suggests that maybe “superagers” just start out with more neurons than the average person. They still have Alzheimer’s if their brains are full of plaques and tangles, he says. But it might be that they started out with so many more neurons that it just doesn’t affect them like it would a normal person.
Uh-huh. That sounds logical. They must’ve started out with so many more neurons that they’re not only unaffected by the Alzheimer’s eating their brains, they even escape normal brain aging. How likely is that, honestly? Isn’t it much more logical to think that...well...maybe plaques don’t cause Alzheimer’s after all?
Another researcher says the study “points to some unknown factors that protect some elderly from the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s.”
Of course. That must be it.
Or it could be that it’s time to give up the plaque theory of Alzheimer’s that we’ve been relying on for decades.
It could be time for medicine and Big Pharma to admit that we might have been wrong. After all, if we stick to the logic the researchers are using we could just as well say, “Oh look! Superager brains are full of plaques and tangles! They must protect us against memory loss!”
But of course no one is saying that, because we all know that “linked to” and “caused by” are two different things. Correlation does not equal causation. If it walks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it could be someone in a duck costume, true. Or it might be a remote-controlled robot duck. But odds are, it’s probably just a duck. And when the bulk of the evidence suggests that plaques and tangles don’t necessarily cause Alzheimer’s disease even though we might find them in Alzheimer’s brains, maybe it’s time for medicine to take its fingers out of its ears and start listening to that evidence.
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