Scientists believe they are finally starting to unravel the secrets of so-called -superagers—senior citizens who live beyond 80 but have the mental sharpness of people decades younger. In one study, at Northwestern University, researchers who examined the brains of 10 superagers found heightened levels of Von Economo neurons, brain cells linked to social processing and awareness. Their brains had up to five times more of these cells than a typical octogenarian’s—more, even, than an average young adult’s, reports The team also found that superagers, who they estimate account for about 5 percent of people 80 or older, are more likely to be extroverts, less likely to be neurotic, and tend to have relatively active and engaged lifestyles. A separate study, at the University of California, Irvine, examined the significance of amyloid, a protein that can lead to plaques linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that some superagers had these deformed proteins in their brains, yet retained their unusually impressive memory skills. “It’s not so long ago that we thought the only trajectory [was] to get old and senile,” says Emily Rogalski, who led the Northwestern study. “We need to push the envelope and see what is possible in older age.”

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