This morning, while I was riding the bus to campus, I checked my email on my phone (man, I love that thing), and had a cognitive psychology topic alert from ScienceDirect. There were only three papers in the alert, but the title of the first one caught my eye: “No disease in the brain of a 115-year-old woman.” I don’t know whether it was the fact that she was really, really old, that they expected to find disease in her brain, or what, but the title drew me in. I need to start coming up with better titles myself.
Anyway, the paper’s in press in the journal Neurobiology of Aging (you can read it here, with a subscription), a journal that I never read ’cause I don’t really know anything about aging and cognition. Here’s the abstract:
Are there limits to the duration of high quality of life? Are there limits to healthy life for a human brain? We have had the opportunity to evaluate the performance of a 112-113-year-old woman and perform full pathological examination of her body immediately after death at the age of 115. The psychological tests revealed that her general performance was above average of healthy adults of 60-75 years. The pathological observations revealed almost no atherosclerotic changes throughout the body. In the brain almost no beta-amyloid plaques or vascular changes were found and only slight accumulation of hyperphosphorylated tau protein with a Braak-stage 2. Counts of the number of locus coeruleus neurons corresponded with the number of neurons found in the brains of healthy people of 60-80 years old.
Our observations indicate that the limits of human cognitive function extends far beyond the range that is currently enjoyed by most individuals and that brain disease, even in supercentanarians, is not inevitable.
In case you’re wondering, beta-amyloid plaques and Braak-stage 2 have to do with Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid plaques are loose pieces of protein (always being produced by cells in the brain) that would ordinarily be broken down, but in Alzheimer’s patients, tend to just hang around. Braak stages have to do with how advanced the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are. Stage 2 (out of 6) is pretty early, and means that the symptoms are limited. So, all in all, she had a really healthy brain for someone who’d been around since the 19th century.